Emerson wondered how would it be possible to evolve to the perfected state in the span of only one lifetime given the weight and drag that Fate places on human development? How could a man like him, born into the limiting circumstances of 19th century New England, hope to achieve mystical perfection before death separated him from this earthly existence? It must have seemed unlikely if not impossible to Emerson for that much evolution to happen in the span of one lifetime. Luckily for Emerson he had already encountered an idea from the East as well as in early Greek thought that could solve this problem. That idea was the idea of reincarnation.
“We rightly say of ourselves, we were born, and afterward we were born again, and many times. We have successive experiences so important, that the new forgets the old…” And in his earlier work, Representative Men written in 1950, Emerson states, “We are tendencies, or rather, symptoms, and none of us complete. We touch and go, and sip the foam of many lives. Rotation is the law of nature.” Earlier still in the essay History from Emerson’s first published series of essays in 1841 he had already stated that, “The philosophical perception of identity through endless mutations of form makes him know the Proteus…The transmigration of souls is no fable. I would it were; but men and women are only half human. Every animal of the barn-yard, the field, and the forest, of the earth and of the waters that are under the earth, has contrived to get a footing and to leave the print of its features and form in some one or other of these upright, heaven-facing speakers.”
Our soul is in the middle of a journey of many lifetimes through the form of every living and nonliving thing on its evolutionary developmental path toward perfection. This is the image that Emerson embraces in his writing. And so he doesn’t have to make the whole evolutionary leap up the mountain in just one lifetime. He has already been living many lifetimes and will live many more on the inevitable journey to the peak. Emerson had already embraced the Eastern notion of Karma, the idea that all of our current actions are partly created and limited by past actions. As Emerson put it, “the history of the individual is always an account of his condition, and he knows himself to be a party to his present estate.”
In his essay “Nominalist and Realist” published in 1844 Emerson states quite clearly that: “Nothing is dead: men feign themselves dead, and endure mock funerals and mournful obituaries, and there they stand looking out of the window, sound and well, in some new and strange disguise. Jesus is not dead: he is very well alive: nor John, nor Paul, nor Mahomet, nor Aristotle; at times we believe we have seen them all, and could easily tell the names under which they go.”
Emerson in his essay quotes the German philosopher Schelling who said, “there is in every man a certain feeling, that he has been what he is from all eternity, and by no means became such in time.” And he goes on to speak directly about how the notions of reincarnation and spiritual development that he found in Eastern literature.
“In the Hindoo fables, Vishnu follows Maya through all her ascending changes, from insect and crawfish up to elephant; whatever form she took, he took the male form of that kind, until she became at last woman and goddess, and he a man and a god. The limitations refine as the soul purifies, but the ring of necessity is always perched at the top.”
One of Emerson’s spiritual soulmates was Margaret Fuller. Fuller was an early transcendentalists and an utterly remarkable figure. She was deeply spiritually awakened at a young age and saw Goethe as her spiritual teacher and Emerson learned from and shared a great deal with her. This post from Fuller’s memoirs is a very clear and profound statement of the soul repeatedly taking on individuated form. She and Emerson undoubtedly shared this view.
“I remembered how, a little child, I had stopped myself one day on the stairs, and asked, how came I here? How is it that I seem to be this Margaret Fuller? What does it mean? What shall I do about it? I remembered all the times and ways in which the same thought had returned. I saw how long it must be before the soul can learn to act under these limitations of time and space, and human nature; but I saw, also, that it Must do it, — that it must make all this false true, — and sow new and immortal plants in the garden of God; before it could return again. I saw there was no self; that selfishness was all folly, and the result of circumstance; that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered; that I had only to live in the idea of the All, and all was mine. This truth came to me, and I received it unhesitatingly; so that I was for that hour taken up into God. In that true ray most of the relations of earth seemed mere films, phenomena.”