Narrative Summary of Representative Men: Seven Lectures

Overview: Emerson guides the reader through the lives and works of seven “representative men,” each embodying a distinct perspective on life and thought. He examines the philosophical breadth of Plato, the mystical insights of Swedenborg, the pragmatic skepticism of Montaigne, the poetic genius of Shakespeare, the strategic prowess of Napoleon, and the multifaceted brilliance of Goethe. This journey allows the reader to delve into the fundamental questions of human existence: the nature of truth, the role of the intellect and will, the meaning of morality, and the balance between individual ambition and collective good.

Main parts:

  • I. Uses of Great Men: This introductory lecture lays out Emerson’s core ideas about the significance of great men in shaping human thought and progress. He argues that they are not merely original forces, but rather “representative” of universal principles and ideas, guiding and inspiring others to greater understanding.
  • II. Plato; Or, The Philosopher: Emerson explores Plato’s enduring influence as the cornerstone of Western philosophy. He highlights Plato’s ability to synthesize the intellectual rigor of Europe with the spiritual depth of Asia, emphasizing the importance of both unity and diversity in understanding the world.
  • III. Swedenborg; Or, The Mystic: Emerson delves into the life and work of Emanuel Swedenborg, a renowned mystic who sought to unravel the moral meaning behind the natural world. He examines Swedenborg’s theory of correspondences and his controversial belief in spiritual revelations, exploring the power and peril of introverted spirituality.
  • IV. Montaigne; Or, The Skeptic: Emerson explores the skeptical perspective through the lens of Michel de Montaigne, a writer known for his frank self-reflection and embrace of doubt. He argues that skepticism is not a form of unbelief, but rather a necessary stage of intellectual development, allowing for critical thinking and balanced understanding.
  • V. Shakspeare; Or, The Poet: Emerson examines Shakespeare’s unparalleled genius as a poet and dramatist. He attributes Shakespeare’s success to his ability to tap into the collective consciousness of his time and country, drawing on existing legends and traditions while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of artistic expression.
  • VI. Napoleon; Or, The Man of the World: Emerson analyzes Napoleon Bonaparte as the embodiment of the democratic spirit of the 19th century, driven by ambition and a pragmatic approach to achieving worldly success. He highlights Napoleon’s strategic brilliance and ruthlessness, contrasting his achievements with the ultimately destructive nature of his egotism.
  • VII. Goethe; Or, The Writer: Emerson concludes with an exploration of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a scholar and writer who embraced the complexity and multiplicity of modern life. He celebrates Goethe’s versatility, his capacity for profound reflection, and his unwavering pursuit of knowledge and understanding.

View on Life:

  • Plato: Life is a journey of seeking truth through a balance of unity and diversity.
  • Swedenborg: Life is a symbolic expression of a spiritual reality, and moral truth is paramount.
  • Montaigne: Life is a complex and uncertain journey, best navigated with a healthy skepticism and a focus on practical experience.
  • Shakspeare: Life is a rich tapestry of experiences, both joyous and tragic, to be explored and understood through the lens of human nature.
  • Napoleon: Life is a pursuit of power and worldly success, achieved through strategic cunning and unwavering determination.
  • Goethe: Life is a journey of self-culture, a continuous process of learning and growth through engagement with the world.


  • Plato’s travels: Plato’s journeys to Egypt and the East to seek knowledge and expand his philosophical horizons.
  • Swedenborg’s mystical experience: Swedenborg’s sudden shift from scientific pursuits to spiritual revelations.
  • Napoleon’s military campaigns: Napoleon’s relentless drive for conquest and his strategic maneuvering in battles.
  • Goethe’s literary journey: Goethe’s extensive engagement with literature, philosophy, science, and art, as reflected in his works.


  • Plato’s struggle with defining the ineffable: Balancing the concept of absolute unity with the existence of diversity.
  • Swedenborg’s struggle with the limitations of language: Conveying his mystical insights through conventional language and avoiding the dangers of overly literal interpretations.
  • Montaigne’s struggle with skepticism: Finding a balance between intellectual doubt and the need for a firm foundation in life.
  • Shakespeare’s struggle with his own mortality and the limitations of human understanding: The constant tension between the boundless possibilities of imagination and the confines of reality.
  • Napoleon’s struggle with achieving lasting peace and prosperity: The inherent danger of unchecked ambition and egotism.
  • Goethe’s struggle with reconciling the material world with the spiritual: Striving to integrate the beauty and wonder of nature with the intellectual pursuit of knowledge.


  • The conflict between the ideal and the real, between intellectual pursuit and practical necessity, between individual ambition and collective good.

The “plot” of “Representative Men” is more thematic than narrative. The central theme is the exploration of various perspectives on life and thought through the examination of seven influential figures. Each lecture forms a distinct chapter, offering insights into the unique worldview and legacy of each “representative man.”

Point of view: Emerson’s perspective is that of a thoughtful observer and commentator, drawing on his own experience and insights to interpret the lives and works of these influential figures. He presents their views with clarity and respect, inviting the reader to consider their contributions to human understanding.

How it’s written: The text is written in a reflective, conversational tone, employing a combination of historical analysis, biographical sketches, and philosophical musings. Emerson uses vivid imagery, evocative language, and insightful comparisons to illustrate his points. For example, he describes Shakespeare’s poetic genius as “aerolites” that have fallen out of heaven, while comparing Napoleon’s strategic brilliance to a “steam-engine” that does our work.

Tone: The tone is generally thoughtful and respectful, with a sense of wonder and awe at the achievements of great men. However, Emerson’s skepticism shines through in his critique of certain aspects of their lives and philosophies. For instance, he criticizes Napoleon’s ruthless ambition and Goethe’s lack of complete surrender to the moral sentiment.

Life choices:

  • Plato: Choose to pursue intellectual truth above worldly honors and possessions.
  • Swedenborg: Commit to a life of spiritual exploration and seeking the divine meaning in the natural world.
  • Montaigne: Choose to live a balanced and honest life, embracing skepticism and prudence.
  • Shakspeare: Embrace the complexities of human nature and use your gifts to illuminate the richness of life.
  • Napoleon: Strive for power and worldly success, even at the cost of moral compromise.
  • Goethe: Dedicate your life to self-cultivation, embracing the vast range of knowledge and experience.


  • Embrace diversity and seek unity in understanding.
  • Trust your own intuition and be wary of blind faith.
  • Find a balance between intellectual pursuit and practical life.
  • Live with authenticity and integrity, recognizing the complexities of human nature.
  • Be wary of unchecked ambition and the seductive allure of power.
  • Pursue knowledge and self-improvement throughout your life.


  • Plato: A philosopher of immense intellect and broad vision, seeking to understand the universe through a balance of unity and diversity.
  • Swedenborg: A visionary mystic who experienced profound spiritual enlightenment and sought to reveal the hidden meaning behind the natural world.
  • Montaigne: A skeptic who embraced doubt and self-reflection, seeking to understand the world through careful observation and experience.
  • Shakspeare: A poet and dramatist of unparalleled genius, capturing the essence of human nature and revealing the depths of the human experience.
  • Napoleon: A shrewd strategist and ambitious leader who rose to power through unwavering determination and a pragmatic approach to achieving his goals.
  • Goethe: A multifaceted scholar and writer who embraced the complexity of modern life, pursuing knowledge and self-cultivation throughout his life.


  • The nature of truth: The quest for understanding and the search for ultimate meaning in the world.
  • The power of the intellect and will: The role of reason, imagination, and moral conviction in shaping human life.
  • The importance of moral sentiment: The significance of compassion, justice, and integrity in human affairs.
  • The balance between individual ambition and collective good: The tension between self-interest and the pursuit of universal truths.


  • The importance of understanding both unity and diversity in the world.
  • The value of personal experience and the need for intellectual humility.
  • The power of imagination and the beauty of human expression.
  • The pursuit of knowledge and self-improvement as a central aim in life.
  • The need for ethical grounding and the potential dangers of unchecked ambition.

Intentions of the characters in the text or the reader of the text:

  • The characters in Emerson’s text are driven by their own unique goals and aspirations, each representing a distinct perspective on life.
  • The reader is invited to contemplate the lives and philosophies of these individuals, drawing their own conclusions and insights about the meaning of life and the nature of human existence.

Unique Vocabulary:

  • Representative: Emphasizes the idea that great men embody universal principles rather than being unique individuals.
  • Morgue: Conveys Emerson’s disapproval of blind adherence to conventions and traditions.
  • Energies: Captures Emerson’s belief in the power of individual intellect and will to overcome obstacles and drive progress.
  • Daemonic: Highlights the mysterious and sometimes unsettling power of human potential.


  • Plato’s interaction with Socrates: Their encounter ignited Plato’s philosophical journey and shaped his views on the nature of truth and justice.
  • Swedenborg’s engineering feat: Hauling two galleys overland for the king, illustrating his early practical skills and scientific curiosity.
  • Napoleon’s conversation with the bishop: Demonstrating his ability to engage in intellectual debate, even on topics where he holds differing views.
  • Goethe’s encounter with Napoleon: Illustrating the intersection between these two “representative men” and their shared belief in the power of the intellect and will.


  • The importance of balancing intellectual pursuits with practical experience: Emphasizing the need for a holistic understanding of the world.
  • The dangers of unchecked egotism and ambition: Exploring the potential for self-destruction when driven by purely self-serving motives.
  • The transformative power of self-cultivation: Highlighting the importance of continuous learning and personal growth.

Facts and findings:

  • The impact of great men on human history: Emerson presents historical figures as catalysts for social and intellectual change.
  • The enduring relevance of classic philosophies: He highlights the ongoing influence of figures like Plato and Socrates on Western thought.
  • The nature of mystical experiences: He explores the complexities of spiritual revelation and its potential impact on individuals and society.
  • The importance of skepticism in fostering critical thinking: He emphasizes the role of doubt in challenging assumptions and promoting intellectual growth.
  • The power of imagination and its role in shaping the human experience: He highlights the transformative potential of creative expression.

Statistics: None are specifically cited in the text. However, Emerson alludes to the scale of Napoleon’s conquests and the immense size of Goethe’s literary output.

Points of view: The text is written from Emerson’s unique perspective, reflecting his own beliefs and values. He offers a personal interpretation of these influential individuals and their impact on history, inviting the reader to engage in critical thinking and draw their own conclusions.

Perspective: Emerson’s perspective is deeply rooted in Transcendentalism, emphasizing individual intuition, the importance of nature, and the pursuit of spiritual understanding. He believes that true progress comes from a balance of intellect, will, and moral sentiment.

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