Emerson was an Idealist. He believed that ultimately some form of mind was the foundation for the rest of reality. His spiritual teaching about Self-Reliance and the Over-soul are all based on his idealism. In short there is some universal mind that “materializes” as the physical world filled with physical beings.
Not only is Emerson an Idealist, but he is a Dualist as well. Although, as I will describe later, he is beginning to explore new non-dual territory especially in his later work. Philosophies of this type can be thought of as vestige or reflection from Christian theology. In the traditional Christian view God is held as being separate and wholly apart from the world. God is the universal mind. Emerson as a Romantic is attempting to secularize Christian thinking by retaining the spiritual depth while ridding himself of the dogma. We must give Emerson some time to work through this however realizing that he was a minister from a long family line of ministers. Emerson’s basic metaphysical conceptions have a great deal in common with those of the German philosopher Georg Hegel who died before Emerson reached the age of 30.
Emerson would become familiar with Hegel’s work later and it would help catalyze an evolutionary turn in Emerson’s thinking, but I am getting ahead of myself.
Hegel, like Emerson saw all of reality as emerging from some form of Universal Mind. Hegel called this mind The Absolute. Both Emerson and Hegel saw that human culture develops over time and both saw this development as emanating from a universal source of intelligence. The distinctly Hegelian tone in Emerson can be heard clearly in this passage from his essay entitled History from the first series of his essays.
“There is one mind common to all individual men. Of the works of this mind history is the record. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. all the facts of history pre-exist as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of this manifold spirit to the manifold world”.
Where there is a difference between Hegel and Emerson is in the way each places emphasis of the individual or cultural as the vehicle for development. Hegel placed more emphasis in his philosophy on the ongoing transformation of culture and Emerson placed more on the transformative role that the individual played in bringing about changes in culture. Emerson believed that when individuals became so advanced that they could allow the Over-soul to take command of their will then they became vehicles for social transformation. Such “representative men” become the leaders that the rest of culture follows.
To explore this difference lets compare Emerson with another philosopher who was his contemporary and who was also influenced by Hegel. That would be Karl Marx. Emerson can be seen as taking Hegel’s ideas with a slant toward the individual and creating the philosophical basis for the American version of a free-market capitalism and democracy. Marx took Hegel’s ideas with a slant toward society as a whole and created the philosophical basis for socialism and communism.
Emerson saw the individual as the fundamental driver of change. Create a society that generates a steady stream of strong individuals and the great among them will create the pathways that the rest of culture will follow. Marx saw impersonal social and cultural forces, particularly economic forces, as the main drivers of change. No matter how powerful or advanced an individual might be, at the end of the day their ability to create change would be overshadowed by the larger cultural, social and economic forces at play.
On the stage of American philosophy the role that Emerson plays in setting a trajectory that would guide thinking right up to the present day cannot be overstated. He was and is a tremendous influence on the way all of us live and think. In terms of his dualistic idealism, that would be rejected by the next generation of philosophers. William James would reject that aspect of both Emerson and Hegel’s thought. But the story of Emerson’s influence on American metaphysics isn’t over, because Emerson had not had his final word yet. As I said we have to give him time to mature his thought and move further from some of the trappings of his roots before we see the evolutionary philosophy emerge that would propel and inform a great tradition in American philosophy.