Last night, I was reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on history. It contains a lot of nonsense along the lines of the universe being found within a grain of sand, applied to human psychology. Emerson’s idea is that every human mind contains within it the potential of a universal mind. That’s an optimistic, and not very testable, idea, but it bothers me because it doesn’t represent the diversity of human minds, and the diversity of mental abilities within the human species, both preceding and as a result of individual development. I don’t believe in a thorough unity of human experience.
Later on, after Emerson stops talking about the universal mind for a while, he discusses the limitation of history as a source of knowledge and wisdom:
“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. What the former age has epitomized into a formula or rule for manipular convenience, it will lose all the good of verifying for itself, by means of the wall of that rule.”
This seems, in Emerson’s way of exaggeration, too strong a statement, but there is a suggestion of something useful in it: The idea that the lessons of history are weaker than the lessons of firsthand experience.
I have witnessed old Sixties protesters try to lead younger generations in activism without much success, because the older protesters insist on pursuing an agenda that is shaped by “what we learned in the Sixties”. They keep on forgetting that no one but a senior citizen has actually learned anything about activism in the Sixties. They assume that everyone around them, no matter their age, will be informed by the same historical events that have shaped their ideas.