Emerson on the Over-Soul
The great spiritual literature of mankind is written with a certain poetic beauty. If you think of the Bhagavad-Gita, the Dhammapada, The Tao Te Ching or the Voice of the Silence you cannot help but feel a musical quality about the writing. If you were to read Plato in the original Greek, we are told, you would discover that his writings are much more akin to Shakespeare or Shelley than the systematic philosophers like Hobbs and Hegel. Spiritual writings and sacred texts have a musical quality about them, an inherent beauty because sound is an esoteric power. The power that music has over human beings is evidence of this fact. And this is one of the keys to appreciating and understanding Emerson. Although very much a philosopher Emerson writes like a poet or a lyricist. His aim is to inspire. And that is why it is important not only to read Emerson but to hear him as well.
Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.
Emerson was a man of contemplation and inspiration. For some writers it is said that the unit of thought is the page, for others the paragraph. For Emerson it is the sentence. And this accounts for why he is so widely quoted. He is an intuitive rather than a systematic thinker. His insights seem to be more intuitional than logical. He was a collector of inspirations, golden moments if you will. His wife recounts on many an occasion he could be found jumping out of bed early in the morning with his wife chiding him, “where are you going in such a hurry?”. “To catch a thought my dear, to catch a thought.” Long daily walks were part of Emerson’s daily routine. Nature was the inspiration and muse for a great deal of his writings. We all know that a long walk by oneself has a meditative quality. The body and senses are engaged giving the mind a chance to work independently and with minimum interruption.
Emerson was often criticized for the disconnected nature of his writings but his aim was not to convince or persuade but instead to light a fire under the mind of his listeners and launch them into their own explorations. The broad and universal themes of these meditations like The Over-Soul, Self-Reliance, Compensation (Karma), Cycles, Nature, Experience are a testament to the expansiveness of his thought. Emerson is, to use his own words, “Man Thinking”, and his ambition in life was to encourage this activity in others. And he did so by offering lectures throughout America during its adolescence.
Emerson was cheerful, amiable, optimistic, introspective, frail physically and dutiful. The great naturalist John Muir met Emerson when he was a young man and said of him; “He is the most sincere man I ever met, as sincere as the Redwoods.” His personal traits are perhaps the least interesting part about him. Emerson was an elegant speaker, perhaps one of the finest in his day. He was very eloquent and subtle. But he was not academic. His writing is more ethereal and less material than his contemporaries. You might say he was Sanskritic. His intention was to make you feel the ideas as much as understand them. His poetic approach helps to create an atmosphere suitable to intuition. His work tends to move from intuition to intuition much like a symphony glides from movement to movement.
The story goes that a washer woman attended every lecture Emerson gave in Concord. Emerson’s talks are very deep and rich in language and for many were hard to comprehend. And a local reporter attending an Emerson lecture asked the washer woman if she understood what Emerson was saying. She replied, “Not a word, but I like to go and see him stand up there and look as though he thought everyone was as good as he was.”
The reason Ralph Waldo Emerson had so much faith in humanity despite all the evidence to the contrary in his lifetime with issues like slavery, civil war, robber barons, and witch hunts menacing his era is his central tenet of the Over-Soul. So what is the Over-Soul? For Emerson this is like asking the fish what is the water, or a bird what is the air?
The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what he is, and to speak from his character, and not from his tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty. We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul. Only by the vision of that Wisdom can the horoscope of the ages be read, and by falling back on our better thoughts, by yielding to the spirit of prophecy which is innate in every man, we can know what it saith. Every man’s words, who speaks from that life, must sound vain to those who do not dwell in the same thought on their own part. I dare not speak for it. My words do not carry its august sense; they fall short and cold. Only itself can inspire whom it will, and behold! their speech shall be lyrical, and sweet, and universal as the rising of the wind. Yet I desire, even by profane words, if I may not use sacred, to indicate the heaven of this deity, and to report what hints I have collected of the transcendent simplicity and energy of the Highest Law.
The Over-Soul is omni-present and therefore there is no point in space devoid of it. Emerson makes it clear that the Soul is not an organ but the user of organs. He tells us that the Soul is greater than it knowledge, it is wiser than its works. He says that the soul is doing the looking, it is the discovery and it is the questioning mind all rolled into together. This is precisely where our training in Theosophical Philosophy comes to our aid. We know that the first Fundamental Principle of the Secret Doctrine concerns the idea of the Absolute, the Causeless Cause and therefore suggests a radical Unity from which the idea of Oneness comes. We know that the Third Fundamental Principle of the Secret Doctrine states:
(c) The fundamental identity of all Souls with the Universal Over-Soul, the latter being itself an aspect of the Unknown Root; and the obligatory pilgrimage for every Soul—a spark of the former—through the Cycle of Incarnation (or “Necessity”) in accordance with Cyclic and Karmic law, during the whole term. In other words, no purely spiritual Buddhi (divine Soul) can have an independent (conscious) existence before the spark which issued from the pure Essence of the Universal Sixth principle,—or the OVER-SOUL,—has (a) passed through every elemental form of the phenomenal world of that Manvantara, and (b) acquired individuality, first by natural impulse, and then by self-induced and self-devised efforts (checked by its Karma), thus ascending through all the degrees of intelligence, from the lowest to the highest Manas, from mineral and plant, up to the holiest archangel (Dhyani-Buddha).
Each human being is a sevenfold being with one’s higher nature mirroring the whole. Every man and woman has access to the Over-Soul. After all the source of one’s consciousness is the Over-Soul itself as it filters through various vestures and vehicles. The goal of human evolution is to build an open conduit between the higher planes of Being within so that they might be of use at lower planes of development. To establish and maintain this connection is the real object of the Spiritual Path.
“In order to obtain a clear perception of the Divine in Man, one must first comprehend the postulate of a universally diffused, omnipresent, eternal Deity in Nature.” – Hermes
The whole concept of soul is a confusing one in conventional religious circles where we get the idea of having a soul, as some sort of appendage we know not where, which we can lose or gain. In theosophical literature there is an emphasis on the idea that we ARE a soul. What soul represents should not be given strict boundaries because it is a dynamic conception and can stand for various levels of the unmanifest and formless realms of being. Emerson is helpful because he communicates ideas of the Gupta Vidya, the Perennial Philosophy or Theosophia without the aid of Sanskrit or Greek terms that are new to many of us. The notion of the “the Wise Silence”, “Universal Beauty”, “the Soul of the Whole”, “The Eternal One” are all extremely suggestive and worthy of contemplation and meditation. Emerson’s concept of the Over-Soul is captured in the expression “The Logos in the Cosmos and the God in Man.”
In the Secret Doctrine HPB praises Emerson’s conception of the Over-Soul and equates it with the Sanskrit notion of Alaya, and the Latin term Anima Mundi “The Soul of the World”. Alaya is that universal essence that pervades everything from the minutest atom to man and gods. This impersonal essence or energy is suggested in popular culture in the Star Wars idea of The Force. It is everywhere, it can be tapped, it is impersonal, meaning it is Law Governed and cannot be petitioned or cajoled.
The Over-Sould has both an immanent and transcendent nature, in a manner of speaking. HPB tells us that Alaya is eternal and immutable in its essence yet reflects itself in every object of the universe.
The Secret Doctrine teaches us that each man IS a soul not that he has a soul. There is the universal soul “Over-Soul” and the individual soul, a reflection of the former. The concept of an individual soul is based upon the principle of analogy and correspondence. Each individual soul is a mirroring of the Over-Soul. Man is the microcosm of the Macrocosm. Man from this perspective is a ray of universal light. The personality, our name and form, is merely a temporary mask on this plane of existence. It is a group of instruments to perceive and act on this plane. The soul on the other hand is related to the whole and a reflection thereof. Furthermore the soul for Emerson and in Theosophy lies outside of space and time. He tells us that we are wiser than we know and that the soul’s communication of truth is the highest event in Nature. The Soul is alive in Nature and is its expression. Each man is the Soul and the personality is the instrument to experience it on this plane.
The soul circumscribes all things. As I have said, it contradicts all experience. In like manner it abolishes time and space. The influence of the senses has, in most men, overpowered the mind to that degree, that the walls of time and space have come to look real and insurmountable; and to speak with levity of these limits is, in the world, the sign of insanity. Yet time and space are but inverse measures of the force of the soul. The spirit sports with time, —
“Can crowd eternity into an hour,
Or stretch an hour to eternity.”
Emerson invokes the idea of how the soul amplifies everything it touches, in a manner of speaking, when it is allowed clear passage. He says that when it breathes through our intellect it is genius, through our will, virtue, through our affection, love. This naturally begs the question what is blocking the expression of the Over-Soul. What stands in its way because all too much of human life is not filled with Genius, Virtue and Love but rather with its opposite.
If we consider what happens in conversation, in reveries, in remorse, in times of passion, in surprises, in the instructions of dreams, wherein often we see ourselves in masquerade, — the droll disguises only magnifying and enhancing a real element, and forcing it on our distinct notice, — we shall catch many hints that will broaden and lighten into knowledge of the secret of nature. All goes to show that the soul in man is not an organ, but animates and exercises all the organs; is not a function, like the power of memory, of calculation, of comparison, but uses these as hands and feet; is not a faculty, but a light; is not the intellect or the will, but the master of the intellect and the will; is the background of our being, in which they lie, — an immensity not possessed and that cannot be possessed. From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all. A man is the fasade of a temple wherein all wisdom and all good abide. What we commonly call man, the eating, drinking, planting, counting man, does not, as we know him, represent himself, but misrepresents himself. Him we do not respect, but the soul, whose organ he is, would he let it appear through his action, would make our knees bend. When it breathes through his intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through his will, it is virtue; when it flows through his affection, it is love. And the blindness of the intellect begins, when it would be something of itself. The weakness of the will begins, when the individual would be something of himself. All reform aims, in some one particular, to let the soul have its way through us; in other words, to engage us to obey.
To speak from the soul is to speak from experience while to speak from the observations of others is its opposite. Reliance on authority is not faith but the corruption of it. The one is from within the other from without. To see life from the vantage point of the Over-Soul is the process of individuation, of gradually gaining of a universal point of view. To live life with the immortal soul in charge and calling the shots, so to speak, is the great shift in evolution mankind is currently struggling with. The transition from Kama-Manas orientation to Buddhi-Manas orientation is another way to characterize the challenge, conundrum, predicament or situation as one might care to see it. Emerson would call this living life wholly from within, or Self-Reliance. He warns about relying upon authority figures and false teachers.
The great distinction between teachers sacred or literary, — between poets like Herbert, and poets like Pope, — between philosophers like Spinoza, Kant, and Coleridge, and philosophers like Locke, Paley, Mackintosh, and Stewart, — between men of the world, who are reckoned accomplished talkers, and here and there a fervent mystic, prophesying, half insane under the infinitude of his thought, — is, that one class speak from within, or from experience, as parties and possessors of the fact; and the other class, from without, as spectators merely, or perhaps as acquainted with the fact on the evidence of third persons. It is of no use to preach to me from without. I can do that too easily myself. Jesus speaks always from within, and in a degree that transcends all others. In that is the miracle. I believe beforehand that it ought so to be. All men stand continually in the expectation of the appearance of such a teacher. But if a man do not speak from within the veil, where the word is one with that it tells of, let him lowly confess it.
Emerson emphasizes the need to establish an original relationship with the divine within and to reject all those who seek to serve as intermediaries to a Higher Nature. The faculties of perception that involve the five senses are only capable of seeing the world in fragments and pieces, with divisions and limits. The faculties to see or experience the Whole are found within he would say. The Soul for Emerson is both the perceiver and revealer of truth and reality.
How much of the light of the Over-Soul shines through the individual can be determined in the scales that measure the degree of fear vs. the capacity for courage, in the amount of ignorance in comparison to knowledge, and in the prevalence of distain in relation to compassion.
If we start out with the premise that we are the Soul or the Self then what is the primary problem. That would be the false identification with name and form.
“See the problem of the ego in impersonal terms I-am-I consciousness exists in individual human beings only as a reflection of universal egoity.” -Hermes
The battleground is the mind, what is it dwelling on, where is it focussed, how well can it focus? How universal, how expansive, how clear are the conceptions it holds? No conception is more important than “Selfhood”. What idea is in the mind in regards to the “Who am I?” question? This can be determined by the meaning to experience equation. The more awake the more meaning. The more asleep the less meaning. Thoreau was famous for taking walks in the woods and seeing analogies galore revealing aspect of cosmogenesis.
The theosophical movement has energized the concept of the Self to help resuscitate the concept of soul which was crippled and cabined by monotheistic religions in the west which erected a wall between man and God. The concept of the Self is intended to capture the nobility and dignity of the ancient concept of the Soul which stood for a connection with the Whole, the All. It also points to interior states of identification devoid of separateness and partiality. We have the expression for example “To live for and as the Self of all beings”. This is suggestive of the meaning behind Emerson’s Over-Soul.
One mode of the divine teaching is the incarnation of the spirit in a form, — in forms, like my own. I live in society; with persons who answer to thoughts in my own mind, or express a certain obedience to the great instincts to which I live. I see its presence to them. I am certified of a common nature; and these other souls, these separated selves, draw me as nothing else can. They stir in me the new emotions we call passion; of love, hatred, fear, admiration, pity; thence comes conversation, competition, persuasion, cities, and war. Persons are supplementary to the primary teaching of the soul. In youth we are mad for persons. Childhood and youth see all the world in them. But the larger experience of man discovers the identical nature appearing through them all. Persons themselves acquaint us with the impersonal. In all conversation between two persons, tacit reference is made, as to a third party, to a common nature. That third party or common nature is not social; it is impersonal; is God. And so in groups where debate is earnest, and especially on high questions, the company become aware that the thought rises to an equal level in all bosoms, that all have a spiritual property in what was said, as well as the sayer. They all become wiser than they were. It arches over them like a temple, this unity of thought, in which every heart beats with nobler sense of power and duty, and thinks and acts with unusual solemnity. All are conscious of attaining to a higher self-possession. It shines for all. There is a certain wisdom of humanity which is common to the greatest men with the lowest, and which our ordinary education often labors to silence and obstruct. The mind is one, and the best minds, who love truth for its own sake, think much less of property in truth. They accept it thankfully everywhere, and do not label or stamp it with any man’s name, for it is theirs long beforehand, and from eternity. The learned and the studious of thought have no monopoly of wisdom. Their violence of direction in some degree disqualifies them to think truly. We owe many valuable observations to people who are not very acute or profound, and who say the thing without effort, which we want and have long been hunting in vain. The action of the soul is oftener in that which is felt and left unsaid, than in that which is said in any conversation. It broods over every society, and they unconsciously seek for it in each other. We know better than we do. We do not yet possess ourselves, and we know at the same time that we are much more. I feel the same truth how often in my trivial conversation with my neighbours, that somewhat higher in each of us overlooks this by-play, and Jove nods to Jove from behind each of us.
Emerson tells us here that personalities are supplemental to the soul. In other words the mask is supplemental to the Actor and are not to be confused one for the other. The mask cannot communicate the full range of the Actor’s power. The personality is a mere fraction of the Whole Man. This confusion is the source of hatred, passion, fear and war as he says. This is the same idea as communicated by the Buddha. The intense identification with a separative self blocks the Soul. Possessiveness blocks the soul. To rehabilitate The Over-Soul in our lives is the same idea as Self-regeneration. We live in divisions, compartments and cliches. This all serves to separate us one from the other. Rather it is healthy to increasingly recover a sense of the whole, it is to become whole again, it is the see the world from the perspective of the whole.
We begin this recovery in simultaneously looking for the Whole within ourselves and acknowledging it in others. Hence true conversation, as Emerson suggests so poetically is “Jove nods to Jove from behind each of us”.
As it is present in all persons, so it is in every period of life. It is adult already in the infant man. In my dealing with my child, my Latin and Greek, my accomplishments and my money stead me nothing; but as much soul as I have avails. If I am wilful, he sets his will against mine, one for one, and leaves me, if I please, the degradation of beating him by my superiority of strength. But if I renounce my will, and act for the soul, setting that up as umpire between us two, out of his young eyes looks the same soul; he reveres and loves with me.
Emerson knew great suffering in his life time. His physical constitution was frail at best and was plagued by ailments and injuries throughout his life. He lost his beloved first wife to illness. He lost an infant child. He witnessed the great travesty of slavery and an immense civil war that was bloody and protracted. He witnessed the greed and arrogance that men of his era had towards native peoples. He was a man of meager means and constantly struggling to provide for his family. Yet despite these hardships he was a man of immense hope and optimism. He had a vision of what lies hidden and unrealized within men. He sensed the Over-Soul in himself and and in others and dedicated his life to spreading this great hope. So beloved was he by his friends and neighbors that late in life when his home was badly burned in a fire and his personal library destroyed the community of Concord rallied to his aid. Enough money was contributed to send him and his daughter to Egypt and while there they secretly rebuilt his home and restored his library for him.
Emerson allows us to study theosophy outside of the normal nomenclature of Sanskrit words and ancient literature we have grown accustomed to in the writings of the founders of the Theosophical movement. It teaches us flexibility of perspective and builds a vocabulary with non-theosophical students that is invaluable. It seems clear that the work of Emerson was laying the ground work for the full force of Eastern Esoteric ideas brought to light by H.P. Blavatsky shortly there after.
His goodness and kindness were as great as his writings. He was a man inspired from within. He provided support and encouragement for many of the great men and women of his time in whatever way he could. The cabin on Walden Pond that was the impetus for Thoreau’s seminal work was on Emerson’s land. Leaves of Grass by Whitman was taken seriously by publishers only after Emerson heaped praise upon the work. And Carlyle, the great friend and British Sage was given a voice in America through Emerson’s tireless support. His ideas are an impressive expression of the democratic ideal not only for a new nation but for a new era. He believed in the infinite possibilities of the private individual. And this faith in mankind has its roots in The Over-Soul.
“I, the imperfect, adore my own Perfect”.