A Good Idea from ... Emerson

Article excerpt

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. …