I have read Carlyle's 1830 essay on history with its famous paragraph :

Before Philosophy can teach by Experience, the Philosophy has to be in readiness, the Experience must be gathered and intelligibly recorded. Now, overlooking the former consideration, and with regard only to the latter, let anyone who has examined the current of human affairs, and how intricate, perplexed, unfathomable, even when seen into with our own eyes, are their thousand-fold blending movements, say whether the true representing of it is easy or impossible. Social Life is the aggregate of all the individual men's Lives who constitute society; History is the essence of innumerable Biographies. But if one Biography, nay, our own Biography, study and recapitulate it as we may, remains in so many points unintelligible to us, how much more must these million, the very facts of which, to say nothing of the purport of them, we know not, and cannot know!

I can readily see how, from a methodological individualist perspective, Carlyle might suppose that institutions, customs, practices, social objects of all kinds, might be reducible to the interactions of (innumerable) individuals. What I cannot see is the point of that word, 'essence'. Why not just say History is the sum of innumerable Biographies or even History is reducible to, is nothing but, innumerable Biographies ?

I may be handicapped by being a philosopher : 'essence' is a problematic notion in the trade but I don't suppose that Carlyle used 'essence' in any philosophically technical sense. I am not raising a casual question without research. I have read much of Caryle - nothing like all - but I have never been able to persuade myself that I understood what 'essence' is doing here.

Historians are much likely than I am to give an informed explanation.

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    Replace "essence" with "core". The alternatives you offer are longer, and seem to reverse the direction. Carlyle is saying that the central core of biography is history; that stories about people take place in, and are interwoven with history.
    – MCW
    Commented Aug 7, 2018 at 18:31
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    Wouldn't he just be using the dictionary's common (not philosophical) definition? Commented Aug 7, 2018 at 18:45
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    @Mark C. Wallace. Thank you for your comment. My only reservation is that Carlyle is talking about history and saying, of history, that it is the essence of innumerable biographies. History is the subject; and innumerable biographies are predicated of it as its essence. It doesn't read - intuitively, to me at least - as if biographies are the subject and their interwovenness with history is predicated of them. But you have suggested an angle that certainly hadn't occurred to me and it will bear exploration. I appreciate. Best : GT Commented Aug 7, 2018 at 19:06
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    @Don Branson. Thanks. The thought that occurs to me that if history is the essence of innumerable biographies, what are the non-essential (accidental or contingent) aspects of biographies that by implicaton are not included in history? I don't know the answer. But without your comment, I would not even have thought of the question. That helps - thank you again. Best - GT Commented Aug 7, 2018 at 19:12
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    I side with Branson. The "essence" expresses that history only contains the essential and most noteworthy of the biographies, and not all the personal details.
    – b.Lorenz
    Commented Aug 7, 2018 at 19:46

1 Answer 1


Let us consider the etymology of the word:


late 14c., essencia (respelled late 15c. on French model), from Latin essentia "being, essence," abstract noun formed (to translate Greek ousia "being, essence") from essent-, present participle stem of esse "to be," from PIE root *es- "to be."

Originally "substance of the Trinity;" the general sense of "basic element of anything" is first recorded in English 1650s, though this is the underlying notion of the first English use of essential. Meaning "ingredient which gives something its particular character" is from c. 1600, especially of distilled oils from plants (1650s), hence "fragrance, perfume" (17c.). In 19c. U.S., essence-peddler could mean "medical salesman" and "skunk."

In particular, consider that an

ingredient which gives something its particular character

can be thought of as that which is left when a substance is rendered to its most basic form; just as the rendering or distillation of plant oils yields perfumes and fragrances.

So for example if we were to compile the biographies of every Napoleonic soldier, from all countries; and then render them to the most basic and common substance by removing every individual's petty details; we would be left as the essence of these biographies a history of the period.


Note that distillation requires repeated renderings to achieve the pure essence. One repeats until the desired purity has been reached. This is why perfumes are much more expensive than mere eau de toilettes.

  • It's worth noting that, although it may seem strange and unusual to a modern eye, English standard spelling is intentionally designed to reflect word etymology; and in particular the Latin, Greek, Germanic or French roots. .British writers well into the 19th Century assumed that all educated readers would be knowledgeable of at least Latin and Greek if not French and German, and would immediately understand the significance of each particular word chosen vis a vis possible synonyms, in terms of its roots and etymology. Commented Aug 7, 2018 at 20:00
  • Fair point, well taken, But I'm sure I know Gk and Latin just as well as Carlyle did, and I still don't know what he meant by 'essence'. However, you have given me a useful lead back into the past which I would otherwise have missed. I appreciate. Best : GT Commented Aug 7, 2018 at 20:05
  • @ Pieter Geerkens. Useful answer, thank you. I wonder just what criterion one would use to distinguish 'the most basic and common substance' from the 'petty details'. But I've a sense that you've taken me closer to Carlyle's meaning, for which I am most grateful. Best - GT. Commented Aug 7, 2018 at 20:08

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