The Spiritual Teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the first half of the 19th century Ralph Waldo Emerson was part of a small group of forward thinking Unitarian ministers who were ushering in an exciting wave of “new thought” that they later called Transcendentalism. In the end even the liberal thinking Unitarian Church was too constrictive for Emerson. He left the ministry only to emerge as one of the greatest spiritual figures ever produced by the United States. Over his lifetime he developed his own ideas and gathered an intellectual circle around him that is arguably the greatest collection of progressive thinkers ever assembled on American soil.

Emerson’s ability to inspire genius in others was fueled by his own profound spiritual vision.  To Emerson all human beings emerged from a single source that he called “The Over-Soul”. In his 1841 essay of the same name he described it as, “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…”

Our ordinary experience of being human Emerson referred to as “What we commonly call man, the eating, drinking, planting, counting man…”  He saw this as a misrepresentation of what we truly are – a misrepresentation that forces us to “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.” In our moments of divine revelation, intuition and insight we experience the direct knowing of the deeper “impersonal” soul of humanity. And in regards to this sense of self he taught that if  “…(we) let it appear through (our) action, (it) would make our knees bend. When it breathes through (our) intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through (our) will, it is virtue; when it flows through (our) affection, it is love.”  This recognition that human beings have two aspects of self anticipates a theme  that is central to Andrew Cohen’s contemporary work today almost two centuries later.

Most Americans know of Emerson mainly through his nature writings and his relentless promotion of non-conformity and authenticity. In his most celebrated essay, “Self-reliance” Emerson says, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.”  Later he adds, “Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day.”

Assertions like these have lead some to mistakenly assume that Emerson’s teaching was nothing more than a rugged form of individualism or an extreme variety of self-assertion. In fact one of the main criticisms levied against Emerson was the charge that he was promoting a reckless form of self-aggrandizement and egotism. A broader reading of Emerson’s work reveals the deeper and more demanding nature of what he meant by self-reliance. The self that he was calling people to was “…the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded.” This aboriginal self was the Over-Soul.

Emerson’s teaching of Self-Reliance revolved around a shift in personal allegiance from the will of our more “common” sense of self to that of the Over-Soul. To Emerson the will of this deeper more transcendent Self was heard through the “involuntary” perceptions of intuition, instinct and deep spiritual revelation. These modes of knowing were not limited by the knowledge contained in our minds and memories and Emerson considered the truths that came from them to be self-evident needing no act of deduction to prove their validity. A similar fundamental shift in identity would later become a central feature of Evolutionary Enlightenment.

Emerson recognized that because we have two senses of self, one superficial and individual, and one profound and universal, our ability to act according to the wisdom of the Over-Soul rests on our ability to distinguish between these two aspects of who we are. As he explains, “Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind, and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due. He may err in the expression of them, but he knows that these things are so, like day and night, not to be disputed”

Emersonian thinking has exerted a tremendous force on the shape and development of the American psyche. It acts like a strong and constant undercurrent in consciousness that reaches through time and pulls everything in its direction. Andrew Cohen, in spite of having little firsthand knowledge of Emerson’s work, could not have avoided its influence.