Emerson believes that history is not only a record of the “universal mind,” but also of the “universal nature” of the singular spirit that is present in all things. Human beings are not merely united intellectually and emotionally through common experiences, but spiritually through a divine “spark of light” that exists in all individuals. Throughout “History” Emerson argues that just as the mind connects people with each other, the soul connects people with the transcendent—that is, with God, nature, and the cosmos. Human history is, therefore, inextricably tied to the comprehensive history of the universe itself. Emerson argues that in order to understand history properly, it should be studied through a subjective spiritual perspective rather than an objective empirical one.
Early on in the essay, Emerson makes the point that spirituality, rather than intellectualism, is the key to understanding human history. While people are connected mentally, this is only because a divine spiritual presence endows all humans with the same ingrained principles and moral framework that dictate their behavior. Emerson cites several specific examples of historical figures—Asdrubal, Caesar Borgia, Solomon, Alcibiades, and Catiline—whose stories are “as much an illustration of the mind’s powers and deprivations as what has befallen us.” These tragic and flawed individuals reflect not merely the common life experiences of human beings, but the underlying universal nature that is ubiquitous to the human spirit. For example, the Roman senator Catiline’s conspiracy to overthrow the Republic reflects humanity’s inherent spiritual inclinations toward defiance, rebellion, and betrayal. Emerson believes that by recognizing the presence of this universal human spirit throughout history, individuals can “[remedy] the defect of our too great nearness to ourselves” and better understand their own vices and virtues reflected in others.
Emerson argues that this universal human nature is what “gives worth to particular men and things,” as it embodies the divinity and spiritual oneness of man with the rest of the universe. All events in human history, then, have an underlying spiritual meaning. Emerson believes that “all laws derive hence their ultimate reason; all express more or less distantly some command of this supreme, illimitable essence,” meaning that all governments and bodies of law throughout history have been developed to control the good and evil sides of human nature.
Because all individuals share one soul, all the “great moments of history” happened as much “for us” in the present as they did for people in the past, since time cannot break the deep interconnected human nature that all people share. Emerson goes on to say that “property also holds of the soul, covers great spiritual facts, and instinctively we at first hold to it with swords and laws, and wide and complex combinations.” While the material world of everyday life may seem divorced from the metaphysical realm, Emerson argues that the same God-given spirit is alive in all things, giving them historical significance and meaning worthy of being defended and upheld.
In order to fully comprehend this deep interconnected value that all things possess, Emerson believes that people must study history spiritually rather than empirically. Further developing his point that history allows individuals to see their strengths and shortcomings reflected in others, Emerson argues that people should not give into the tendency to approach the past as a “problem” that they solve from a distance. He points out that individuals tend to view history as a “wild, savage and preposterous There or Then” that sharply contrasts with “the Here and the Now.” Instead, says Emerson, people should make an effort to embrace the similarities between themselves and people who lived in the past, as recognizing the “spark of light” in everyone and everything allows the individual to see the true divine nature of the universe. According to Emerson, souls “transmigrate” from one being to another, implying that physical and temporal boundaries between people are essentially irrelevant. He therefore advocates for focusing on intuitive spiritual truths (such as love) over hard empirical facts when studying history.
Emerson’s high esteem of deep spiritual awareness is ultimately reflective of his transcendentalist values. The transcendentalists held an ambivalent view of the Unitarian movement of Christianity that prevailed in nineteenth century Boston. While they resonated with the core conviction of God’s omnipresence, they sought a deeper and more visceral spiritual experience than the increasing rationalism and intellectualism of the church. Emerson applies this idea specifically to history in order to advocate for a broader understanding of the past that emphasizes spiritual meaning over names and dates. In doing so, he believes that individuals can overcome their selfish tendencies and become more spiritually sound in their connections with God, nature, and their fellow human beings.
Spirituality Quotes in History
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.