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Ralph Waldo Emerson's
Philosophy of History

Emerson : intellectual influences

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in 1803 in Boston, Massachussetts, into family circumstances where his father was a minister of religion who had a full involvement in the cultural life of that bustling sea-port town, and more remotely, of the cultural life of New England.
However, the Reverend William Emerson died in 1811 leaving his wife with their six young children in her care. Mary Moody Emerson, an unmarried sister of the late William Emerson, also accepted some responsibilities for assisting towards the upbringing of the Emerson children.
One of the children, a girl, expired and one of the boys proved to have learning difficulties but mother and aunt made considerable sacrifices such that the other four Emerson brothers could be well educated. Each of them attended prominent colleges after receiving earlier periods of instruction at the academically rigorous Boston Latin School.

In the early eighteen thirties Ralph Waldo Emerson began to attempt to involve himself in an aspect of the cultural life of New England where persons would deliver lectures on literary, philosophical, scientific or other topics to paying audiences.

It had become increasingly commonplace for some literary, philosophical or other club or society to offer a fee to a lecturer to speak on a topic chosen by that club or society.
Encouraged by some early success he was having as an increasingly popular lecturer Emerson decided, in the later months of 1836, to undertake a potentially much more financially rewarding series of lectures. That is to say he hoped to book a well-regarded cultural venue, over a number of evenings, and offer tickets for sale such that, after his various expenses were met, he could personally hope to receive a substantial sum for his efforts.

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In a letter to his brother William Emerson, (who was then a lawyer by profession), of May 24, 1831, Emerson wrote:
"I have been reading 7 or 8 lectures of Cousin - in the first of three vols. of his philosophy. A master of history, an epic he makes of man & of the world - & excels all men in giving effect, yea, éclat to a metaphysical theory. Have you not read it? tis good reading - well worth the time - clients or no clients." (Letters I, 322). Ralph L. Rusk,

If we turn to Cousin, (Victor Cousin's Introduction to the History of Philosophy), for insight as to what kind of content impressed Emerson, in 1831, as being "excellent" metaphysical theory we read such things as:
What is the business of history? What is the stuff of which it is made? Who is the personage of history? Man: evidently man and human nature. There are many different elements in history. What are they? Evidently again, the elements of human nature. History is therefore the development of humanity, and of humanity only; for nothing else but humanity develops itself, for nothing else than humanity is free. … But if there can be in history no other elements than those of humanity, and if we can possess ourselves of all the elements of humanity by anticipation, before we enter into history, we shall have gained much; for in beginning history, we shall know that it can have neither more nor less than certain elements, although these may clothe themselves in different forms. Assuredly we shall have made great progress towards the attainment of our object, when we shall know beforehand all the pieces which compose the machine whose play and operation we would study.
Moreover, when we have all the elements, I mean all the essential elements, their mutual relations do, as it were, discover themselves. We draw from the nature of these different elements, if not all their possible relations, at least their general and fundamental relations. …
We must begin with seeking the essential elements of humanity, and proceed by deriving from the nature of these elements their fundamental relations, and from these the laws of their development; and finally we must go to history and ask if it confirms or rejects our results.
If it confirms them, if experience reproduces the speculations of thought, it will follow in the first place, that we have entered upon a path which leads somewhere, ... and, in the second place, we should no longer have systems, schools, and epochs merely, in juxtaposition in space, and succession in time, - a simple chronology; but that we should have a chronology in a frame superior to its own. History would no longer be a series of incoherent words, succeeding each other in a certain order we know not why; it would become an intelligible phrase in which all the words, presenting some idea, would form together one whole, which would completely express some definite meaning.
Victor Cousin - Introduction to the History of Philosophy, translated by H. G. Linberg, Boston: Hilliard, Gray, Little and Wilkins, (1832), pp. 101-104

In a letter to his brother Edward of May, 1834, Emerson wrote:
… Philosophy affirms that the outward world is only phenomenal, and the whole concern of dinners, of tailors, of gigs, of balls, whereof men make such account is a quite relative and temporary one - an intricate dream - the exhalation of the present state of the soul ...

Emerson's Philosophy of History lecture series
The Goose Pond Principles

It was late in 1836 that Emerson devised the aforementioned lecture series to be delivered over twelve instalments under the overall title of - The Philosophy of History.

In preparing to construct this series of lectures Emerson actually set out some clear guidelines for himself in his Journal.
The brilliant & warm day let me out this morn. into the wood & to Goose Pond. Amid the many colored trees I thought what principles I might lay down as the foundations of this Course of Lectures I shall read to my fellow citizens.

1 There is a relation between man & nature so that whatever is in matter is in mind.

2 It is a necessity of the human nature that it should express itself outwardly & embody its thought.
As all creatures are allured to reproduce themselves, so must the thought be imparted in Speech. The more profound the thought, the more burdensome. What is in will out. Action is as great a pleasure & cannot be forborne.

3 It is the constant endeavor of the mind to idealize the actual, to accommodate the shows of things to the desires of the mind. Hence architecture & all art.

4 It is the constant tendency of the mind to Unify all it beholds, or to reduce the remotest facts to a single law. Hence all endeavors at classification.

5 There is a parallel tendency / corresponding Unity in nature which makes this just, as in the composition of the compound shell, or leaf, or animal from few elements.

6 There is a tendency in the mind to separate particulars & in magnifying them to lose sight of the connexion of the object with the Whole. Hence all false views, Sects;

7 Underneath all Appearances & causing all appearances are certain eternal laws which we call the Nature of Things.

8 There is one Mind common to all individual men.

Emerson - Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks 5:221

The very first lecture in this series on The Philosophy of History, itself being entitled "Introductory", and delivered on December 8, 1836, begins with these sentences:
It is remarkable that most men read little History. Even scholars, whose business it is to read, complain of its dullness. This fact may suggest that it is not rightly written for it should, should it not? Correspond to the whole of the mind, to whatever is lovely and powerful. No man can think that this all-containing picture if seen in good light could be devoid of interest. …
Later we read such things as:
… There can be no true history written until a just estimate of human nature is holden by the historian. The eye of those who have written our annals is not fixed at a point of sufficient elevation to command the whole prospect of humanity. They magnify appearances, measure by vulgar standards; and in their solicitude to expose the events which have made the most noise omit the most pregnant and silent revolutions. Every body can see when a coronation takes place, or can write down the result of a battle; but a change in the philosophy of the learned class, a loss of religious faith in the majority of a nation, which are revolutions and which prescribe the course of affairs for centuries to come, not everyone can see. …

… We arrive early at the great discovery that there is one Mind common to all individual men; …

… To this universal mind all men are born. … What Plato has thought he may think. What a saint has felt he may feel. What has at any time befallen any man, he may understand. He that purges out of his thought every vestige of personal limitation and respires the air of pure truth will speak or write or do what is durable, what is intelligible to all times and countries. …

… Of this one mind, History is the record. Of this mind the events of history are the work. Its constitution is illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion which belongs to it, in appropriate events. But always the thought is prior to the fact. All the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of nature give power to but one at a time. …

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Despite his earlier strong enthusiasm for Victor Cousin's philosophical views as expressed in May, 1831, Emerson seems to have had a change of heart in relation to at least some of them a very few years later.

The following journal entry is dated Sunday June 24, 1838:
The wise is not to be preached and not to be flattered out of his position of perpetual inquiry. The young and admiring tend to make him quit his apprenticeship and sit down and build homestead, church and state, like other householders that have renounced their right to traverse the star-lit desarts of truth, for the comforts of an acre, house and barn. The goodies, on the other hand, taunt him with inefficiency, with homelessness, with "having no shelter," with pride in refusing to accept the revealed word of truth. But more sacred, more grand, forever dear, speaks the holy oracle to him in the silence of the passions, and rebukes these vain babblers of puny taste and of false religion. Nothing is so shallow as dogmatism. Your soaring thought is only a point more, a station more whence you draw triangles for the survey of the illimitable field: and the event of each moment, the harvest, the shower, the steamboat disaster, the bankruptcy, the amour of Julia, the apoplexy of Dr. Sawdust, are tests to try your theory, your truth, the approximate result you call Truth & reveal its defects. If I have renounced the search of truth, if I have come into the port of some pretending dogmatism, some New Church or Old Church, some Schelling or Cousin, I have died to all use of these new events that are born out of prolific time into multitude of life every hour. I am as a bankrupt to whom brilliant opportunities offer in vain. He has just foreclosed his freedom, tied his hands, locked himself up and given the key to another to keep.
Journals and miscellaneous notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson volume VII pp. 32-33

The following passage, which is again critical of Victor Cousin philosophical views, is taken from Emerson's "Literary Ethics" address of July, 1838:
… Is it not the lesson of our experience that every man, were life long enough, would write history for himelf? What else do these volumes of extracts and manuscript commentaries, that every scholar writes, indicate? Greek history is one thing to me; another to you. Since the birth of Niebuhr and Wolf, Roman and Greek History have been written anew. Since Carlyle wrote French History, we see that no history, that we have, is safe, but a new classifier shall give it new and more philosophical arrangement. Thucydides, Livy, have only provided materials. The moment a man of genius pronounces the name of the Pelasgi, of Athens, of the Etrurian, of the Roman people, we see their state under a new aspect. As in poetry and history, so in the other departments. There are few masters or none. Religion is yet to be settled on its fast foundations in the breast of man; and politics, and philosophy, and letters, and art. As yet we have nothing but tendency and indication.
This starting, this warping of the best literary works from the adamant of nature, is especially observable in philosophy. Let it take what tone of pretension it will, to this complexion must it come, at last. Take, for example, the French Eclecticism, which Cousin esteems so conclusive; there is an optical illusion in it. It avows great pretensions. It looks as if they had all truth, in taking all the systems, and had nothing to do, but to sift and wash and strain, and the gold and diamonds would remain in the last colander. But, Truth is such a flyaway, such a slyboots, so untransportable and unbarrelable a commodity, that it is as bad to catch as light. Shut the shutters never so quick, to keep all the light in, it is all in vain; it is gone before you can cry, Hold. And so it happens with our philosophy. Translate, collate, distil all the systems, it steads you nothing; for truth will not be compelled, in any mechanical manner. But the first observation you make, in the sincere act of your nature, though on the veriest trifle, may open a new view of nature and of man, that, like a menstruum, shall dissolve all theories in it; shall take up Greece, Rome, Stoicism, Eclecticism, and what not, as mere data and food for analysis, and dispose of your world-containing system, as a very little unit. A profound thought, anywhere, classifies all things: a profound thought will lift Olympus. The book of philosophy is only a fact, and no more inspiring fact than another, and no less; but a wise man will never esteem it anything final and transcending. Go and talk with a man of genius, and the first word he utters, sets all your so-called knowledge afloat and at large. Then Plato, Bacon, Kant, and the Eclectic Cousin, condescend instantly to be men and mere facts.
I by no means aim, in these remarks, to disparage the merit of these or of any existing compositions; I only say that any particular portraiture does not in any manner exclude or fore-stall a new attempt, but, when considered by the soul, warps and shrinks away. The inundation of the spirit sweeps away before it all our little architecture of wit and memory, as straws and straw-huts before the torrent. …

Such repudiations as these can be taken as suggesting a fairly substantial departure from Emerson's initial, very high, estimate of Victor Cousin's overall credibility!
[An Emerson whom we can probably not unreasonably depict as being one of "the would-be wise who are engaged in perpetual inquiry".]

Emerson : History & Biography

Emerson, according to some well-recognised scholars, had "evolved a characteristic theory of his own".
… In 1836-37 he had not read enough or deeply enough in the new German and French philosophers of history to have experiences a decisive influence directly from them, but their organic view of history was in the air. Partly drawing upon older sources, such as his long-standing enthusiasm for Plutarch, he evolved a characteristic theory of his own, with aid from "new lights" such as Coleridge, Carlyle, and Goethe, that history is "the private man's biography writ large" - thus inverting the organic theories of the day to merge history into the individual rather than to merge the individual into the process of history.
Stephen E. Whicher, Robert E. Spiller, Wallace E. Williams. The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Volume II pages 2-3

The following two quotes are to be found in Emerson's "Introductory" Philosophy of History lecture of 1836:
… We, as we read, must be Romans, Greeks, Barbarians, priest and king, martyr and executioner, or we shall see nothing, keep nothing, learn nothing. …

… the first observation you make, in the sincere act of your nature, though on the veriest trifle, may open a new view of nature and of man …

Whilst his 'Philosophy of History' lecture series was in preparation Emerson wrote in his Journal:
Here are two or three facts plain and clear: That histories are not yet history; that the historian should be a philosopher, for surely he can describe the outward event better, if assisted by the sight of the cause; historians are men of talents, and of the market, and not devout, benevolent, with eyes that make walls no walls; that history is written to enhance the present hour; that all history is to be written from man, is all to be explained from individual history, or must remain words. We, as we read, must be Romans, Greeks, Barbarians, priest and king, martyr and executioner, or we shall see nothing, keep nothing, learn nothing. There is nothing but is related to us; nothing that does not interest the historian in its relation; tree, horse, iron, that the roots of all things are in man and therefore the philosophy of history is a consideration of science, art, literature, religion as well as politics.
Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, with Annotations - 1836-1838 Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes pp. 153-154

Emerson's lecture series on The Philosophy of History was subsequently delivered over twelve instalments late in 1836 and on into the spring of 1837.

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In the early eighteen forties Emerson was responsible for the authorship of a collection of essays with the intention that printed volumes of which would be offered for sale to the public.
He chose to place an essay entitled "History", (prepared under his own approach that placed emphasis on ~ biography ~ rather than the essential "metaphysical" elements proposed by Victor Cousin), as the first essay to be presented in this volume of essays.

It may be possible to see some "biographically-related" emphasis, as well as residual influences somewhat attributable to Victor Cousin, in such statements from Emerson's essay "History" as:
There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate. What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has be-fallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent.

Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact; all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of nature give power to but one at a time. …

… If the whole of history is in one man, it is all to be explained from individual experience. …

… Of the universal mind each individual man is one more incarnation. All its properties consist in him. Each new fact in his private experience flashes a light on what great bodies of men have done … Every revolution was first a thought in one man's mind, and when the same thought occurs to another man, it is the key to that era. …

… 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. 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. …

… 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. …

… 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. … 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. In old Rome the public roads beginning at the Forum proceeded north, south, east, west, to the centre of every province of the empire, making each market-town of Persia, Spain, and Britain pervious to the soldiers of the capital: so out of the human heart go, as it were, highways to the heart of every object in nature, to reduce it under the dominion of man. A man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world. His faculties refer to natures out of him, and predict the world he is to inhabit, as the fins of the fish foreshow that water exists, or the wings of an eagle in the egg presuppose air. He cannot live without a world. …

… every history should be written in a wisdom which divined the range of our affinities and looked at facts as symbols. I am ashamed to see what a shallow village tale our so-called History is. …

Broader and deeper we must write our annals, -- from an ethical reformation, from an influx of the ever new, ever sanative conscience, -- if we would trulier express our central and wide-related nature, instead of this old chronology of selfishness and pride to which we have too long lent our eyes. …

Emerson has been suggested of as having been a "Lover of Wisdom":
A self-denial no less austere than the saint's is demanded of the scholar. He must worship truth, and forego all things for that, and choose defeat and pain, so that his treasure in thought is thereby augmented. …

The circle of the green earth he must measure with his shoes to find the man who can yield him truth. He shall then know that there is somewhat more blessed and great in hearing than in speaking. Happy is the hearing man; unhappy the speaking man. As long as I hear truth I am bathed by a beautiful element and am not conscious of any limits to my nature. The suggestions are thousandfold that I hear and see. The waters of the great deep have ingress and egress to the soul. …

Each new mind we approach seems to require an abdication of all our past and present possessions. A new doctrine seems at first a subversion of all our opinions, tastes, and manner of living. Such has Swedenborg, such has Kant, such has Coleridge, such has Hegel or his interpreter Cousin seemed to many young men in this country. Take thankfully and heartily all they can give. Exhaust them, wrestle with them, let them not go until their blessing be won, and after a short season the dismay will be overpast, the excess of influence withdrawn, and they will be no longer an alarming meteor, but one more bright star shining serenely in your heaven and blending its light with all your day.
'Intellect' ~ [Another of Emerson's Essays of 1841]