A good idea from ... Emerson

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The Independent Culture
HISTORY is one of those subjects that almost no one seems to enjoy at school, but almost everyone gets interested in as they get older. Perhaps it's only normal to find writing an essay on the Industrial Revolution boring when you're 15; a couple of decades working in a factory or office later, the topic promises to shed light on how our society got to be in the questionable place it's now in.

The American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) loved history, but felt most of us fail to derive proper benefit from the subject because we write and read it in the wrong way. The central problem is that we imagine the past to be extremely foreign, and so we don't use it as the supreme practical guide to life that it can be. Historians have an almost professional investment in suggesting that their subject is quite mysterious. When we read old documents, they warn us that words we think we understand were actually used in very different ways hundreds of years ago (words like nation or democracy, for example); they don't encourage us to draw comparisons between ourselves and the ancient Romans or Greeks. They emphasise how easily we can turn the past into a fantasy by not reckoning with its distinctiveness.

Emerson appreciated these arguments (history was becoming professionalised as a subject in universities at the time), yet called for greater imaginative licence in our approach to history. He suggested reading history as a compendium of moral lessons. Because human beings basically don't change in time, we are the same sort of people as those who built the Coliseum or fought the wars of religion or populated China in the sixth century BC. "There is one mind common to all individual men," wrote Emerson in his characteristic lumpy, lyrical New England English. "Of the universal mind each individual man is one more incarnation. All its properties consist in him."

In our lives, we are restricted in the kinds of ideas and practices we can follow. We cannot both be a monk and a Roman soldier, or a Ming China man and a Cuzco Indian. Yet Emerson argued that we all have bits of the monk and the soldier, the Chinaman and the Indian within us - even if we have never picked up a gun nor worshipped in a temple. Each of us contains the whole of human history in latent form, and it is by reading history books that we can learn to develop these hidden sides; Roman history teaches us about our "Roman selves", monastic history can reveal to us the desire for retreat and contemplation which society today denies us.

For Emerson, history is a liberating force - it shows us that what our society thinks of as abnormal, another may have accepted. When we feel oppressed by our society's definition of the normal, we should turn to history books, and identify with the characters and modes of life, which often suit us better than what is around us. The past can teach us to grow more acceptable to ourselves.