History

by

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Ralph Waldo Emerson Character Analysis

The author and narrator of the essay. A prominent figure of American Transcendentalism, Emerson was a reverend, philosopher, and lecturer in addition to writing poems and essays. Held in high esteem as a wise philosophical and spiritual thinker, he was nicknamed “The Sage of Concord” and “The Buddha of the West” by his contemporaries. Emerson is considered by many to be one of the most important writers of the nineteenth century, and heavily influenced other well-known transcendentalist writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. In “History,” Emerson’s voice is firmly grounded in the principles of transcendentalism, advocating for intuition over reason and subjectivity over empiricism in the study of history. Like other transcendentalists thinkers, Emerson’s perspective throughout the essay is rooted in his deep reverence for God, the individual, nature, and beauty. As a man of deep Christian faith and graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, Emerson approaches the topic of history through a spiritual lens, arguing that history is the record of the universal mind and spirit that unifies all human beings with God, nature, and each other. Emerson's central tenet of “History” is rejoicing in the inherent worth of every individual that persists across time.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Quotes in History

The History quotes below are all either spoken by Ralph Waldo Emerson or refer to Ralph Waldo Emerson. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
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). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Dover Thrift Editions edition of History published in 1993.
History Quotes

There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same … what at any time has befallen any man, he can understand.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), The Individual
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

Universal history, the poets, the romancers, do not in their stateliest pictures—in the sacerdotal, the imperial palaces, in the triumphs of will or of genius—anywhere lose our ear, anywhere make us feel that we intrude, that this is for better men; but rather it is true, that in their grandest strokes we feel most at home.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), The Individual
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history in our private experience, and verifying them here. All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), The Individual
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Upborne and surrounded as we are by this all-creating nature, soft and fluid as a cloud or the air, why should we be such hard pedants, and magnify a few forms? Why should we make account of time, or of magnitude, or of figure? The soul knows them not, and genius, obeying its law, knows how to play with them as a young child plays with graybeard and in churches.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker)
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

If any one will but take pains to observe the variety of actions to which he is equally inclined in certain moods of mind, and those to which he is averse, he will see how deep is the chain of affinity.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), The Individual
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

In like manner, all public facts are to be individualized, all private facts are to be generalized. Then at once History becomes fluid and true, and Biography deep and sublime.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), The Individual
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

What is the foundation of that interest all men feel in Greek history, letters, art, and poetry, in all its periods, from the Heroic or Homeric age down to the domestic life of the Athenians and Spartans, four or five centuries later? What but this, that every man passes personally through a Grecian period.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), The Individual
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

When the voice of a prophet out of the deeps of antiquity merely echoes to him a sentiment of his infancy, a prayer of his youth, he then pierces to the truth through all the confusion of tradition and the caricature of institutions.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), The Individual
Related Symbols: The Gothic Cathedral
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

The advancing man discovers how deep a property he has in literature,—in all fable as well as in all history. He finds that the poet was no odd fellow who described strange and impossible situations, but that universal man wrote by his pen a confession true for one and true for all.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), The Individual
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:
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Ralph Waldo Emerson Character Timeline in History

The timeline below shows where the character Ralph Waldo Emerson appears in History. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
History
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Emerson begins the essay by arguing that every individual has access to the “universal mind”—a collective... (full context)
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Emerson defines history as the record of this universal mind, arguing that man can only be... (full context)
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Expanding on the notion that the universal mind writes history, Emerson argues that it must also read history. Since all experiences are universal, individuals can make... (full context)
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This universal nature, Emerson argues, is what “gives worth to particular men and things.” Similar to his idea of... (full context)
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According to Emerson, the universal nature allows humanity to aspire to a collective ideal, which he likens to... (full context)
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...his argument that history is an ongoing record of the universal human mind and nature, Emerson implores the individual to “read history actively and not passively” by viewing their own life... (full context)
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Emerson believes that since history encompasses the universal mind, the individual can relate any historical event... (full context)
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Building on the idea that historical facts are subjective, Emerson believes that all history is essentially biography. He suggests that each individual is living their... (full context)
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Emerson argues that all laws are based on the universal nature of human beings, and that... (full context)
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Emerson goes on to explore the motivations behind studying history and excavating ancient ruins such as... (full context)
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But the individual, argues Emerson, also cannot help but see himself in history. In Emerson’s view, a Gothic cathedral represents... (full context)
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Hearkening back to his reference of the archetypical wise man, Emerson states that the wisest and most intelligent men—poets, philosophers, saints—are able see the sacred universal... (full context)
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Emerson shifts his focus to nature, asking: why should people concern themselves with hard facts and... (full context)
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Emerson again emphasizes that history is a reflection of the universal mind and universal nature that... (full context)
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...and is evident in the way that people react to art and literature. For example, Emerson draws a parallel between “the furrows of the brow” in a man and “the strata... (full context)
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Emerson goes on to marvel at the sublime and beautiful similarities between different elements of nature,... (full context)
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Emerson believes that civil and natural history (that of art and literature) must be explained by... (full context)
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According to Emerson, seemingly “trivial” everyday happenings are actually gateways to the timeless essence of humanity. Ordinary individuals... (full context)
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Emerson again cites the example of a Gothic cathedral, this time using it to illustrate the... (full context)
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Deepening his ongoing argument that history must be personalized, Emerson asserts that an individual’s private biography must be likewise be generalized and applied to all... (full context)
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Reiterating his belief that the universal mind authors history, Emerson notes that everything the individual observes in the external world will correspond to a deep,... (full context)
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Emerson believes that man’s interest in history (ancient Greek literature, art, and poetry, for example) reflects... (full context)
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The appeal of history, says Emerson, is not an empty admiration of the ancient, but rather a recognition of what is... (full context)
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Emerson reiterates his belief that the individual experiences a historical age through a parallel “age” in... (full context)
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Emerson suggests that our private experiences are merely iterations of the universal experiences of human beings,... (full context)
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Emerson further emphasizes his point that the individual’s actions are merely personal manifestations of the universal... (full context)
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Transitioning to the topic of literature, Emerson discusses how the individual who studies works of the past will recognize the universal mind... (full context)
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Emerson argues that the reason certain works of literature are considered great is because they express... (full context)
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Expanding on this notion of honoring spiritual truths over empirical facts, Emerson states that the most abstract and emotional forms of literature are the most valuable. Poetry,... (full context)
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Emerson believes that although people often fail to understand the uniting spirit of all things, that... (full context)
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Emerson points out that the history of the external world exists alongside the civil and metaphysical... (full context)
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Human history, argues Emerson, would not have been possible without a corresponding natural history. Man’s intrinsic connection to nature... (full context)
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Emerson restates his central argument—that a singular unifying consciousness and spirit unites the individual with all... (full context)
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Emerson believes that human beings can ultimately know very little about objective facts because man’s true... (full context)