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Understanding the Human Condition

The study of the human mind and behavior

It may well be that any serious attempt at Understanding the Human Condition could do a lot worse than to undertake the study of the Human mind and behavior.

In 1831 Ralph Waldo Emerson, who later became enduringly famous and influential as an essayist and lecturer, was much influenced by a work by a French philosopher named Victor Cousin.

If we turn to Cousin, (Victor Cousin's Introduction to the History of Philosophy), for insight as to what kind of content impressed Emerson 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.
Victor Cousin - Introduction to the History of Philosophy, translated by H. G. Linberg, Boston: Hilliard, Gray, Little and Wilkins, (1832), pp. 101-104

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

The very first lecture in this series was delivered on December 8, 1836, and 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. …

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

… Of this one mind, History is the record. Of this mind the events of history are the work. …

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In Emerson's essay "History" of 1841 we read such statements as:
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. …
These selections from Emerson's works, and his being so strongly influenced by Victor Cousin, surely suggest that an Understanding of the Human Condition could be much enhanced by the study of the Human mind and behavior.

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"Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature."
David Hume
History is not the story of strangers, aliens from another realm; it is the story of us had we been born a little earlier.
Stephen Fry

Ralph Waldo Emerson


RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1803-1882) was, in his time, the leading voice of intellectual culture in the United States. He remains widely influential to this day through his essays, lectures, poems, and philosophical writings.

Even before he had first read Cousin's Introduction to the History of Philosophy Emerson had expressed views in his private Journals which suggest that he accepted that Human Nature, and Human Beings, tend to display three identifiable aspects and orientations:
Imagine hope to be removed from the human breast & see how Society will sink, how the strong bands of order & improvement will be relaxed & what a deathlike stillness would take the place of the restless energies that now move the world. The scholar will extinguish his midnight lamp, the merchant will furl his white sails & bid them seek the deep no more. The anxious patriot who stood out for his country to the last & devised in the last beleagured citadel, profound schemes for its deliverance and aggrandizement, will sheathe his sword and blot his fame. Remove hope, & the world becomes a blank and rottenness. (Journal entry made between October and December, 1823)

In all districts of all lands, in all the classes of communities thousands of minds are intently occupied, the merchant in his compting house, the mechanist over his plans, the statesman at his map, his treaty, & his tariff, the scholar in the skilful history & eloquence of antiquity, each stung to the quick with the desire of exalting himself to a hasty & yet unfound height above the level of his peers. Each is absorbed in the prospect of good accruing to himself but each is no less contributing to the utmost of his ability to fix & adorn human civilization. (Journal entry of December, 1824)

Our neighbours are occupied with employments of infinite diversity. Some are intent on commercial speculations; some engage warmly in political contention; some are found all day long at their books … (This dates from January - February, 1828)

The quotes from Emerson are reminiscent of a line from another "leading voice of intellectual culture" - William Shakespeare.
There's neither honesty, manhood, nor good fellowship in thee.
William Shakespeare: Henry IV (Pt 1), Act I, Scene II

Such celebrated "Men of Literature" as Emerson and Shakespeare have accepted that Human Nature is 'Tripartite' and Emerson accepted that there was an investigable association between Human Nature and History.

Should we actually become persuaded that an understanding of "the elements of Humanity" is fairly directly linked to insights into Historical Developments we will surely also become to some degree persuaded that we have made progress towards Understanding the Human Condition through the study of the Human mind and behavior.

"The first glance at History convinces us that the actions of men proceed from their needs, their passions, their characters and talents; and impresses us with the belief that such needs, passions and interests are the sole spring of actions."
Georg Hegel, 1770-1831, German philosopher, The Philosophy of History (1837)


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