Ralph Waldo Emerson’s first series of essays grew out of the public lectures he gave after resigning as pastor of the Second Church of Boston. Though a great number of parallels exist between the essays—”Love” and “Friendship” are clearly companion pieces, and the thesis of “Self-Reliance” is a corollary of the thesis of “History”—there is no intended coherence in the volume as a whole. The ideas expressed in Essays show the influence of German and British Romanticism; the German writers reached Emerson mostly through the Englishmen Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. These tendencies of Romantic thought include the privileging of idealism over realism, imagination over reason, and the inner or psychological over the outer or objective. What was original in Emerson’s thought, however, arose from his own struggles with ecclesial authority and with his personal experience of the young American nation that was still inventing itself. Emerson’s peculiarly American form of Romanticism became known as “Transcendentalism,” the term he himself preferred.
Essays is an ecclectic gathering of a dozen essays in the following order: “History,” “Self-Reliance,” “Compensation,” “Spiritual Laws,” “Love,” “Friendship,” “Prudence,” “Heroism,” “The Over-Soul,” “Circles,” “Intellect,” and “Art.” Although there may be no significance to the order of all the essays, scholars since the mid-twentieth century have generally agreed that beginning the collection with “History” and “Self-Reliance” is significant. The notion that what is called “history” is not one immutable, objective reality, but something incarnated in the human individual, is the premise that leads not only to Emerson’s concept of over-soul but also to that of self-reliance. The over-soul connection is obvious when Emerson begins “History”—and, therefore, the whole collection of essays—with “There is one mind common to all individual men.” Less obvious is the connection with “Self-Reliance,” but the logic proceeds as follows: If everyone has equal access to this “common mind,” then no one has particular authority. The individual conscience is the highest moral authority. The ideas in Essays, therefore, overlap.