“Let it suffice that in the light of these two facts, namely, that the mind is One, and that nature is its correlative, history is to be read and written”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
What are we to make of Emerson reading history? “There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time,” he writes in the third paragraph of “History,” the opening essay in in the First Series of essays published in 1841. His essay probes the relation between our lives and the past to build a case for reading and writing history “actively and not passively.”
For Emerson, the reading of history is an act designed to empower a reader, or in his words, “to esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary.” This is a radical proposition—should we have the ability to read it. It is a proposition that was radical in Emerson’s time as well as our own. What it really means to “live amid hallucinations,” as Emerson will say in his essay “Illusions,” is to live a life of unrealized potential. We read history to know our selves.
Early in the essay Emerson appears to reduce history to the interpretation of a single person. “All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography.” Yet to presume that he is endorsing a subjective approach to knowledge, or to knowing the past, is to misread Emerson. For as the essay goes on to elaborate, history will only come alive when we make the past a part of ourselves—for we are defined through the ongoing process of relating to the world around us. “Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself, — must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know,” Emerson writes. The challenge is to bring history alive in the present, to make it an inseparable part of our experience in the world. As Emerson explains, “All inquiry into antiquity, — all curiosity respecting the Pyramids, the excavated cities, Stonehenge, the Ohio Circles, Mexico, Memphis, — is the desire to do away this wild, savage, and preposterous There or Then, and introduce in its place the Here and the Now.”
For Emerson, history is not limited to “the civil and metaphysical history of man.” For he also talks about natural history, the history of the external world:
But along with the civil and metaphysical history of man, another history goes daily forward, — that of the external world, — in which he is not less strictly implicated. He is the compend of time; he is also the correlative of nature. His power consists in the multitude of his affinities, in the fact that his life is intertwined with the whole chain of organic and inorganic being.
Whether or not we are studying cultural or natural history, we only come to know history when that knowledge becomes ourselves. “Civil and natural history, the history of art and of literature, must be explained from individual history, or must remain words.”
The essay “History” is a users guide to reading and writing history—to making history. For Emerson, in reading history actively we are engaging in the building of ourselves. That is to say, as a student of history, I release “the genius and creative principle of each and of all eras in my own mind.” When Emerson says at the end of the essay that a person is “a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world,” he means what he says.