History

by

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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History Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Emerson begins the essay by arguing that every individual has access to the “universal mind”—a collective consciousness of thoughts, feelings, and experiences that are intrinsic to all human beings. The universal mind is how the individual can understand “all that is or can be done.”
Emerson introduces the image of a “universal mind” to illustrate the relationship between two core transcendentalist beliefs—the oneness of all people and the inherent value of the individual. While human beings are united by their common experiences, it is the individual who makes unique use of this collective consciousness.
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Emerson defines history as the record of this universal mind, arguing that man can only be understood in the full context of human history. He believes that distinct historical entities—peoples, nations, governments—are simply the result of individuals with the same universal mind experiencing different external circumstances.
Emerson applies the broad transcendentalist notion of unity specifically to the study of history, claiming that all individuals are connected to one another irrespective of time, distance, or superficial differences. History is individually significant and meaningful because each person is inherently linked to every idea that has ever been thought up, every emotion that has ever been felt, and every experience that has ever been had.
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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 sense of history through the perspective of their own lives. Emerson suggests that “the hours of our life” in the present and “centuries of time” in the past can be used to mutually explain one another, and that individual experiences are as universal as they are private. He emphasizes that a reader must become the historical figures he reads about in order to understand humanity. For example, studying flawed historical figures such as Solomon, Alcibiades, and Catiline (ancient leaders who sinned or committed crimes), allows the individual to make sense of the same vices and virtues that exist within themselves. Emerson believes that by contextualizing history personally rather than distantly, men can see their own realities reflected in others and therefore come to recognize the “universal nature” of all things.
By asserting that the universal mind must write as well as read the past, Emerson characterizes the study of history as an active, participatory experience rather than a series of passive lessons. Although human history is the collective effort of all people, Emerson calls the individual to action, arguing that it is each person’s responsibility to directly relate themselves to the events and people they read about. He specifically cites flawed historical figures who individuals may be hesitant to identify with in order to challenge his readers’ perceptions of themselves and others. Emerson believes that, by “becoming” the people who have lived before them (by actively relating to and empathizing with their experiences), the individual gains insight and wisdom about themselves and the spiritual “universal nature” that unites everyone and everything.
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This universal nature, Emerson argues, is what “gives worth to particular men and things.” Similar to his idea of the universal mind, the universal nature is an omnipresent spirit or soul that unites all people and things as one. Emerson believes that “this supreme, illimitable essence” is what motivates all human endeavors and is ultimately what gives life its meaning. Since the same universal nature lives within all individuals, significant historical moments happened as much “for us” in the present as they did for people in the past.
Whereas the “universal mind” unites people intellectually, emotionally, and experientially, the “universal nature” is what unites them spiritually. Emerson’s belief that all beings share a singular soul was common among transcendentalists thinkers. Individuals are not solitary, meaningless creatures, but rather derive their worth from the unifying spirit present in all things. He applies this idea to history by suggesting that all great discoveries and achievements have resonated not just in the time period in which they occurred, but in the universal spirit that transcends time.
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According to Emerson, the universal nature allows humanity to aspire to a collective ideal, which he likens to the literary archetype of the wise man. There are divine morals and values that are intrinsic to the universal human spirit, and individuals therefore admire and seek to embody the same character of the “unattained but attainable self.” Emerson believes that, throughout history, human expression and art has served as a form of high praise for the wise man ideal.
Emerson deepens his notion of humanity’s “universal nature” by suggesting that the soul shared by all of humanity contains core underlying principles, morals, and desires. He uses the universal archetype of the wise man to exemplify this idea; individuals are only able to recognize and admire this character because they each have this ideal ingrained within them on a spiritual level.
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Having outlined 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 as the source material and historical texts as commentary. In doing so, individuals will realize that their lives are just as meaningful and important as those of well-known historical figures.
Emerson repeats his call upon the individual to take responsibility. He foresees that his audience may be tempted to view history as a distant grand narrative and quantify their own lives as insignificant in comparison. Instead, he encourages them to see history and their own lives as one and the same, equally important and meaningful because they are ultimately inseparable.
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Emerson believes that since history encompasses the universal mind, the individual can relate any historical event to some aspect of their personal life. He urges men not to feel intimidated by the grandiosity of kingdoms, empires, or nations, since mankind’s creations derive from the same human spirit that all individuals possess. “Poetry and annals are alike,” says Emerson, meaning that history is open to personal interpretation beyond objective facts.
Again, Emerson urges individuals to make studying history a participatory activity. He hearkens back to the transcendentalist valuation of the individual, arguing that all of humanity’s most noble achievements originated from the same soul that inhabits every person. Emerson’s assertion that history is subjective contradicts the emphasis on objective truth and empirical data that dominated Western culture at the time.
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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 own personal representation of the same timeless human experience, and that it is up to the individual to deem a piece of history as fact only once they have lived their version of it.
Emerson makes the argument that history is subjective into a more personal idea for his audience, emphasizing that history and biography are one and the same since all experiences are universal. This position also clarifies Emerson’s stance on unity—he believes that individuals access the universal mind of humanity when they live their own personal versions of the experiences that are common to all people.
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Emerson argues that all laws are based on the universal nature of human beings, and that individuals must come to understand historical events (the French Reign of Terror or the Salem Witch Trials, for example) as participants rather than observers. He believes individuals naturally sense that they are united in spirit with all other human beings, and therefore tend to intellectually and emotionally empathize with the experiences of others.
Emerson draws a link between the ideas of unity and spirituality. He believes that individuals are connected in their thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and that the universal spirit in all beings is what facilitates this connection. He deepens his ongoing challenge for the individual to actively study history, intentionally using examples such as the French Reign of Terror and the Salem Witch trials that are likely off-putting and emotionally challenging for his audience to “participate” in. But, as a transcendentalist, Emerson believes that the intrinsic unity between individuals allows them to identify with different people and experiences, no matter how distant or detached from their own lives those events may seem.
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Emerson goes on to explore the motivations behind studying history and excavating ancient ruins such as the Egyptian Pyramids or Stonehenge. He argues that curiosity toward history is generally rooted in man’s desire to separate himself from the mistakes, ignorance, and violence of the past. History, Emerson suggests, is a personal “problem” that each individual seeks to solve by distancing themselves from the “There or Then” and rooting themselves in the “Here and the Now.”
Emerson presents a critique of the traditional ways people study history. Instead of seeking to understand and empathize with the subject matter they are learning about, Emerson argues that people in the “Here and the Now” tend to examine historical texts or excavate artifacts in order to make themselves feel superior to the wrongdoings of people in the “There or Then.” This, according to Emerson, is a spiritual “problem” or conundrum within the individual, as they seek to distance themselves from the shortcomings they see in other people that are a reflection of their own flawed spirit.
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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 the paradox of historical creations—they are both “done by us, and not done by us.” The individual will find it difficult to see themselves in the beauty and grandiosity of the church but is able to identify with its builder and therefore with intricate historical progression that led up to its construction. The universal nature of all people and things makes it inevitable that man will see himself in all of history.
Emerson believes that though individuals may try to distance themselves from history, it is inevitable that they will intuitively sense the connection they share with people across time. The Gothic cathedral is an image he uses repeatedly throughout the essay. Here, it symbolizes the interaction of human beings with their surroundings over time, as the construction of such a complex structure was only made possible through thousands of years of architectural development and progress.
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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 nature of all people and things which negates any superficial variations. Though people tend to use circumstantial differences to draw distinctions between past and present, there is an undeniable common thread that unites everyone and everything across time.
Drawing upon his transcendentalist valuation of intuitive wisdom over empirical knowledge, Emerson argues that true intelligence is a mastery of spiritual truths rather than objective facts. His veneration for metaphysical figures (such as saints) is central to American Transcendentalism and Romanticism, movements that strayed from the nineteenth century Western trend toward valuing scientific truth over religious beliefs.
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Emerson shifts his focus to nature, asking: why should people concern themselves with hard facts and figures when true meaning is to be found in natural beauty? He believes that genius is not a mastery of the hard sciences, but rather a spiritual acuity in recognizing the eternity and divinity of life that is evident at all levels of the nature. Emerson argues that although the natural world is perpetually changing, the “eternal unity” remains constant in all things.
Like other transcendentalist thinkers, Emerson holds a deep reverence for nature. He argues that nature is sublime and all-encompassing, as its “eternal unity” connects all beings through the universal spirit. He again emphasizes his notion that true wisdom and lies in a deep understanding of the soul.
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Emerson again emphasizes that history is a reflection of the universal mind and universal nature that all human beings share. The distinct civil history, literature, architecture, and art of any given culture will inevitably reflect the same archetypical characters and experiences.
Emerson reemphasizes his argument that humans are connected through a shared soul and common experiences. By repeating this idea and incorporating it into his discussion of nature, he makes the point that natural history (as opposed to civil or artistic history) consists of patterns that repeat eternally and connect all beings across time.
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This universality is rooted in nature’s tendency to repeat the same patterns on different levels 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 of the rock” in nature. Emerson points out that the individual’s tendency to conjure their own associations of natural beauty when viewing art is a testament to the sacred unity contained in nature.
Expanding his discussion of the natural patterns that connect all living things, Emerson argues that human creation (art, literature, and architecture) is the means by which people try to make sense of this universal soul. He believes that people imitate and abstract upon nature through creativity, and as a result viewing art unites people in a universal experience of the natural connection that exists among everyone and everything.
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Emerson goes on to marvel at the sublime and beautiful similarities between different elements of nature, and between life and art. He notes that there are men today who resemble ancient Greek sculptures. Just an individual can only make sense of themselves by “becoming” history, an artist must “become” an element of nature (such as a tree or a rock) in order to capture its essence. And just as history reflects the universal human mind, art reflects universal nature of all things.
Emerson once again emphasizes the individual’s responsibility to actively read and “become” history. He deepens the connection between art and nature by invoking his former parallel between history and the universal mind. Just as history serves as a record of humanity’s common thoughts, feelings, and experiences, human creativity serves as a record of the universal nature that unites all people.
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Emerson believes that civil and natural history (that of art and literature) must be explained by individual history. Grand works of architecture such as the Santa Croce, the Dome of St. Peter’s, and the Strasburg Cathedral are merely physical depictions of the divinity that exists in the human soul. Artists, argues Emerson, are therefore indistinguishable from their work on a spiritual level.
Drawing on his former point that all history is inherently biographical, Emerson believes that each individual must interpret history for themselves and thus discover the subjective significance of universal human experiences. Since individuals are able to capture ideas and emotions for posterity in their creations, Emerson believes that studying art is one of the most effective ways to make sense of history. He cites well-known works of art such as the Dome of St. Peter’s in order to evoke the universal sense of awe that human beings feel when viewing great works of art.
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According to Emerson, seemingly “trivial” everyday happenings are actually gateways to the timeless essence of humanity. Ordinary individuals often bear witness to the sublime beauty and power of nature in their daily lives. For example, Emerson compares a man who watches the moon rise from the midnight clouds to an archangel presiding over the universe’s creation. He also recalls seeing lightning in the sky and likening it to Jove’s lightning bolt in ancient Greek mythology. Drawing on these instances, Emerson believes that each private experience is an archetype of a universal experience common to all human beings throughout history.
Emerson delves deeper into his belief that the individual must make history a personal study, advocating for his audience to view their private lives as ongoing manifestations of the experiences that have been universal to humanity throughout history. He believes that seemingly mundane experiences (particularly those tied to nature) are actually the most significant because they have been a constant for humanity throughout history. Framing his argument around the individual reflects Emerson’s ties to transcendentalism, as the movement placed heavy emphasis on the inherent divinity and worth of each person.
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Emerson again cites the example of a Gothic cathedral, this time using it to illustrate the man’s tendency to portray the natural world through art, architecture, and other cultural artifacts. He observes how art imitates nature and vice versa, pointing out the visual similarities between a pine grove and a Saxon archway or a winter sunset and a cathedral’s stained-glass window. Emerson views the Gothic church as a symbolic union of nature and man.
By again referencing the symbol of the Gothic cathedral, Emerson extends the symbolism of the image to reflect the intrinsic connection between manmade creations and nature. Beauty was held as a high ideal in the transcendentalist and Romantic movements of the nineteenth century, as it signified the presence and benevolence of God in all things.
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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 of humanity. He illustrates this notion by exemplifying how an archetypical human struggle—freedom versus security—has manifested in different regions, among different peoples, and even figuratively within individuals. Early Asians and Africans were simultaneously nomadic and agricultural by geographic necessity. Americans and Europeans face an ongoing cultural dilemma between progress and nationalistic tradition. And, finally, man has dual tendencies toward adventure and repose depending on his environment.
Emerson wrote “History” in the early nineteenth century, during which practices such as slavery and imperialism violently divided groups of people along racial and cultural lines. Emerson’s belief in the inherent similarities of all individuals was therefore somewhat of a revolutionary notion, and one that defined American Transcendentalism as a counter-culture movement. He traces the struggle of freedom versus security from broad groups of people down to its manifestation in the individual in order to convey that what people think, feel, and experience in their private lives has been universal to all human beings throughout history.
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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, intrinsic truth within themselves. Conversely, the individual can seek within themselves to make sense of history.
Spiritual awareness continues to be a crucial element in Emerson’s model for studying history. He believes that the relationship between history and the individual is reciprocal—just as people can study history to make sense of themselves, spiritual introspection will allow the individual to gain a sense of empathy and connection with people who lived in the past.
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Emerson believes that man’s interest in history (ancient Greek literature, art, and poetry, for example) reflects the intrinsic unity of the individual and the universal. He argues that any given historical era is paralleled by a corresponding period in the individual’s personal development. Greek antiquity, for example, revered the unity of body and spirit, and embodied principles of man’s universal nature such as courage, justice, and strength.
Emerson states that people are not only connected to the past in an abstract manner, but literally. He adds further complexity to his ongoing argument that the individual has a participatory role in studying history, emphasizing that history is indistinguishable from biography. Drawing on the example of the values embodied by ancient Greek culture, Emerson illustrates his belief that all values embodied by various groups and time periods have been different manifestations of the same underlying spiritual truths of humanity.
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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 natural and perfect in human beings. For example, the present-day individual who read Greek mythology are able to sense the “eternity of man” through an enduring love of nature and feel a kinship with their fellow man, past and present. Studying history allows the individual to incorporate the thoughts of others into their own being, erasing the boundaries of time altogether. Emerson questions why we should preoccupy ourselves with historical data such as geography or dates when the true significance of history lies in the timeless unity of all human minds and souls.
Emerson continues to emphasize his argument that the study of history should be centered around recognizing people’s inherent similarities rather than quantifying their differences. The essay’s roots in transcendentalist thought are made obvious again, as Emerson states his belief that the intuitive spiritual connection of people across time should be the focus of history, as opposed to the rote memorization of facts and figures. He also incorporates his ongoing discussion of manmade creations and nature, arguing that art and literature (Greek mythology, for example) are abstractions on nature, and that viewing or reading great works allows people of different time periods to bond spiritually over a shared reverence for the natural world.
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Emerson reiterates his belief that the individual experiences a historical age through a parallel “age” in their own life. An ancient prophet, for example, can ignite a personal renaissance period in the individual awaken in them what is already ingrained in their soul. Emerson argues that the reason people worship certain religious and intellectual figures is because, like the Gothic cathedral, they are both of man and not of man. Holy figures such as Jesus or Moses bridge the gap between the earthly and the divine, inspiring awareness in the individual of the eternal unity between themselves and others.
Emerson once again claims that history and biography are one and the same—an individual’s private experiences are merely personal manifestations of the same universal experiences that unite all human beings. Emerson believes that individuals who are able to see their own experiences as representative of the singular human spirit will gain a true understand of humanity and its history. He draws on the symbol of the Gothic cathedral once more, this time utilizing the image to represent a unification of the material and spiritual realms.
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Emerson suggests that our private experiences are merely iterations of the universal experiences of human beings, using the example of a man who was strictly raised to be obedient. As an adult, the man will draw on the experience of his repressive childhood to understand that history is comprised of universal patterns that repeat infinitely—the tyrannized child becomes the oppressor who tyrannizes children, and thus perpetuates the cycle of history. When the individual recognizes the underlying universal principles in his own experiences, they are able to understand and sympathize with how those same principles manifested in the events of the past.
Emerson’s example of the man who is personally tyrannized in childhood more specifically illustrates his ongoing point that an individual’s private life is a small-scale version of the common truths and principles that define the human experience. He expands on his complex theme of unity, explaining that humanity’s collective consciousness is not only universal, but eternal.
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Emerson further emphasizes his point that the individual’s actions are merely personal manifestations of the universal mind. History is a perpetual record of individuals progressing through the same cycles and discovering the same wisdom, time and time again. There have been many Martin Luthers, argues Emerson, in the history of the world; men throughout the ages have manifested the same spirit and displayed the same convictions in their own personal lives.
As a transcendentalist thinker and former reverend, Emerson holds a deep belief in the inherent worth of the individual. He makes the case that seemingly ordinary people are no less noteworthy than well-known figures like Martin Luther. History immortalizes certain men due to chance circumstances, argues Emerson, but the underlying universal mind that motivated their actions is possessed by all people.
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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 shared by all human beings. He believes that the individual will find their own biographical truths reflected in the writings of revered authors such as Homer (who wrote the oldest works of Western literature) and Chaucer (considered the father of English poetry). Like historical facts, a literary work becomes canonical wisdom only when the individual resonates with the narrative’s underlying archetypical truths.
Emerson references his former point that manmade creations reflect the universal nature of human beings. He makes the point that while great works of literature (such as those written by Homer or Chaucer) may seem distant and detached from an individual’s private life, they are only of high cultural value because they reflect common truths for a wide breadth of individuals.
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Emerson argues that the reason certain works of literature are considered great is because they express universal truths and are therefore consistently and timelessly relevant. Ancient Greek fables, for example, went on to influence the entire Western tradition of language, literature, and religion. He believes that the individual is not truly separate from other people, nor from God, and that the soul transmigrates fluidly from one being to another. Emerson declares that people should refuse to live strictly by facts, and instead embrace the universal “spark of light” that unites everyone and everything.
Emerson reiterates his point that great works of art and literature are representative of the universal human experience. He bridges together several of the essay’s key claims here, arguing that manmade creations represent the universal nature of all things and that great works of art and literature are canonical because they express universal spiritual truths. Emerson’s characterization of human life as cyclical ties back to his assertion that it is also an ongoing record of the universal human mind—just as souls transmigrate and eternally live on, so do experiences.
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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, for example, has the unique ability to transcend reality and inspire limitless creativity in the reader. Whether something factually exists in the material world does not matter, argues Emerson, as even fictional characters are “eternal figures” that originate from the universal mind and nature of human beings.
Emerson again hearkens back to his roots in transcendentalist philosophy, professing his belief that an idea’s factual validity does not define its worth. He uses the example of poetry to illustrate the value of abstract art forms in expressing unquantifiable truths such as beauty or love. Emerson argues that true “eternal figures” are historically relevant not because they hold empirical value, but because they resonate deeply with the universal human spirit.
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Emerson believes that although people often fail to understand the uniting spirit of all things, that universal nature speaks through human beings in the form of art, literature, religion, and other cultural facets. As a result, the individual is able to capture and articulate truths that they do not fully comprehend. For example, human beings conceived the idea of magic as an attempt to explain the scientific forces that they perceived but could not understand. Literary characters, then, often serve as allegorical representations of complex concepts such as temptation, poverty, or honesty.
Building on his former idea that human creation is representative of natural beauty and spiritual truth, Emerson believes that creativity is the means by which humanity seeks to make sense of metaphysical concepts they do not fully comprehend. He argues that literary symbolism has a higher purpose, in that it allows the individual to better conceptualize and empathize with the most complex and universal elements of the human experience.
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Emerson points out that the history of the external world exists alongside the civil and metaphysical histories of human beings. Man is not, however, any less integrated with the history of nature than with other facets of the past. Emerson likens the human heart to the expansive roads and trade routes of ancient Rome, as it branches out to unite the individual with all of nature. He once again emphasizes that a universal nature unites everyone and everything on a metaphysical level.
Emerson again draws several of his main points together as he explains that history encompasses the collective mind and spirit of humanity alongside the eternal existence of the natural world. He compares a more practical manmade creation—roads in ancient Rome—to the human heart, further emphasizing the idea that humanity seeks to represent and understand the sublime and divine natural world through creativity.
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Human history, argues Emerson, would not have been possible without a corresponding natural history. Man’s intrinsic connection to nature has facilitated every historical event. For example, Columbus could not have charted his course without a planet to explore, and Newton could not have made his scientific discoveries without the great stretches of time that brought the celestial body into being. Emerson also mentions the individual’s inherent connection to other people, stating his belief that no amount of time would allow the mind of one man could to produce the wisdom that love brings about. 
Deepening his conviction that humanity and nature have an intrinsic spiritual connection, Emerson argues that human history and natural history are similarly inseparable. This point again highlights Emerson’s transcendentalist belief in the inherent oneness of all things. By studying history, the individual can come to realize the transcendent beauty of nature present in all events and recognize the constant role that universal human emotions such as love have played over time.
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Emerson restates his central argument—that a singular unifying consciousness and spirit unites the individual with all other people and things, and that history is the record of this universal soul. History is not a dead collection of facts in a book, rather it is a collection of innate truths and universal experiences that cycle through time and manifest in each individual.
Emerson reemphasizes the idea that history is a record of both humanity’s collective consciousness and the shared soul of all things. He again argues against the common paradigm of teaching history as a series of facts, instead advocating for a holistic study of the past as a cyclical series of intrinsic spiritual truths and archetypical human experiences.
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Emerson believes that human beings can ultimately know very little about objective facts because man’s true faculties lie in matters of the soul. He argues that historical annals should pay proper homage to the universal mind of the human race—their spiritual wisdom, innate truths, and divine connections. Emerson concludes the essay with a call to action: people must reform their perspective when writing history to be broader and deeper. Only then, says Emerson, can the selfishness of the individual be overcome and the unity of all things, past and present, be understood.
Bringing the essay to a close, Emerson expands his central argument to call the individual to action in reforming how history is written and studied. He invokes the transcendentalist conviction that spirituality should be a deep, visceral experience rather than a detached concept—a distinction from the rationality and empiricism of the dominant Unitarian Church. Emerson implores the individual to write historical accounts not as a collection of cold facts, but as record of the divine spark in humankind that has persisted throughout time.
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