The human soul is not the procession of any single individual; it is the ground of awareness that is the essence of the entire human experience. It is a field of pure knowing. At least that is what Ralph Waldo Emerson learned from Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Emerson used the term the Over-Soul to express this foundational consciousness that is the source of human awareness. In his own writing Emerson is true to the spirit of Coleridge’s vision of Reason.
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.
Emerson is describing a non-dual intelligence. Pure knowing in which seeing and seen, subject and object are one and the same. And he directly borrows from Coleridge when he writes, “We distinguish the announcements of the soul, its manifestations of its own nature, by the term Revelation.”
Emerson’s spiritual teaching he called Self-Reliance and the Self that he taught us to rely upon was not the ego or personality, but the big “S” Self or the Over-Soul. According to Emerson surrender to this deeper self is the birth of true human greatness and virtue.
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
There is something else that I find in Emerson’s writing, something I do not seem to find in Coleridge’s magnificent book Aids to Reflection. In the line, “The soul looketh steadily forwards, creating a world before her, leaving worlds behind her.” Emerson implies that the soul is not merely the passive source of human knowledge, but a forward moving, world building force in the universe. In another passage Emerson describes how the soul advances.
The soul’s advances are not made by gradation, such as can be represented by motion in a straight line; but rather by ascension of state, such as can be represented by metamorphosis, — from the egg to the worm, from the worm to the fly. The growths of genius are of a certain total character, that does not advance the elect individual first over John, then Adam, then Richard, and give to each the pain of discovered inferiority,–but by every throe of growth the man expands there where he works, passing, at each pulsation, classes, populations, of men.
The advances of the Over-Soul as described by Emerson seem very similar to more modern ideas of evolution. Evolution does not take place linearly from one individual to the next. We mark the progress of evolution by leaps from one species to the next, or in the case of cultural evolution from one stage of culture to the next.
The soul is the field of pure knowing that is the foundation of human consciousness. Or, from my last post, the light spreading out in all directions prior to any being reflected back to be seen. It is pure intelligence without any object yet known. Emerson’s implication is that this pure knowing is evolving. The foundational intelligence of the universe is growing and evidence of that growth can be seen in the progress of evolution in the physical and living world. The soul evolves.