Like other transcendentalist writers, Emerson believes that the individual is intrinsically united with God, nature, and their fellow man. In “History,” he explains that the past is a record of the “universal mind”—the thoughts, ideas, and experiences that are inherent to all people and connect them across time. According to Emerson, history is a cycle in which every individual discovers these same ingrained principles through their own personal experiences. Studying history allows the individual to better understand and contextualize themselves within the universal human experience, which Emerson suggests is the source of each person’s worth.
For Emerson, the common experiences of all people throughout history is what unites them, and that unity, in turn, is what gives meaning to human endeavors. He believes that no individual can be understood without considering the broader context of human history and that different people, communities, and civilizations reflect the same underlying principles applied to variable circumstances. For example, Emerson observes that the same struggle of freedom versus security manifests among different groups of people as well as within the individual. Emerson illustrates this idea by stating that “the creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.” Although individuals are complicated on the surface, each person can be reduced to the core of what unites us as humans—a divine spark of love, truth, and wisdom. The individual recognizes themselves in the experiences and expressions of others, reflecting a “chain of affinity” wherein every man passes through the same universal cycles of discovery and development.
Emerson further defines unity as a participatory effort, suggesting that in order to properly form one’s identity and make sense of the world, each individual must actively relate their private lives to the universal human experience. He suggests that personal identity is not merely a reflection or extension of history, but that history itself is inherently biographical. When people study historical events or excavate artifacts, they are actually digging into the true nature of themselves and recognizing the same virtues, flaws, and motivations that are inherent to all people.
Emerson argues that every individual has “parallel miniature experiences of his own” that are an active embodiment of the universal human experience, rather than an imitation of a disconnected past. He illustrates this idea with the example of a young child who represses his behavior and speech in order to be obedient. The adult can draw on the core emotion of this simple childhood experience to relate himself to grand historical narratives of oppression and tyranny. Emerson believes that each person inevitably repeats the same steps in their private lives that have timelessly unified all humans in their struggles and achievements. History not a dead relic of the past—it lives within each individual. Humanity’s unifying principle truths are awakened in all of us through personal experience.
In Emerson’s view, history is as deeply personal as it is universal. Drawing on the German idealist philosophy that influenced transcendentalism, Emerson argues that history is not objective. People can know very little of the true nature of things and therefore cannot rely on facts alone. This can also be interpreted as a rejection of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on rationality and empiricism. Emerson believes that each individual must instead rely on the “universal mind” that unites all people under a singular moral consciousness. Emerson concludes the essay with a call to action for a reformation of how we write annals (historical records). Rather than focusing on what sets people apart, Emerson ultimately advocates for a “broader and deeper” perspective that expresses the universal nature of humanity.
Unity Quotes in History
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.