Emerson on the Soul

Emerson on the Soul written by  Jonathan Bishop

Emerson on the Soul

Jonathan Bishop

“What your heart thinks great, is great. The soul’s emphasis is always right.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson has been many things to many people – a literary muse, a spiritual guide, an exemplar of “self-reliance.” “Most consistently,” as Jonathan Bishop says, “he has been a representative of certain human possibilities” – the possibilities we hold within our own souls. In everything Emerson wrote, Bishop asserts, this was his real subject. “The whole of his doctrine about human possibilities would need the word “soul” for a grammatical subject.”

In Emerson’s day, not unlike our own, thoughts on the soul were most often expressed within religious contexts and referred to the immortal part of the human being in relation to God. For Emerson the soul was the central focus in all of his lectures and writings, whatever the subject. He even marveled at how his thoughts were palatable to diverse audiences as long as he presented them under some other heading. He was invariably speaking about the life of the soul.

Today as we stretch the word “soul” to its ultimate meaning we arrive at “the thing by which a living creature is alive.” Our soul is our essence, our life force, our deepest identity; it is “that by which we are who we are.” To Emerson the soul was all of these things and more. It was the part of us that is wholly connected to our original source, the source of all, the ultimate power at the heart of the universe. The soul was indeed the part of us that connects us to God. It was Emerson’s belief that in our souls we are one with God.

“The Sage of Concord” recognized that for most of us it is only in rare moments that we give any attention to the life of our soul. We live in the material world and “not from one nature, but from many shifting fears and short motives.” It is only when we live consciously and devote ourselves to a strong inner life that we find the part of us that is our most infallible guide. Emerson believed that this approach to life was the most important thing any of us can aspire to. “The one thing in the world of value,” he said, “is the active soul.”

Emerson’s lifetime of contemplation revealed much to him about the soul and about the nature of the universe the soul reveals to us. He believed that when we are truly aligned with our own souls it is impossible for us to devote ourselves to anything but the highest good – because the highest good is the ongoing work of the universe. In the heart of each and every soul, he insisted, is a moral sense, a moral law, one that will unfailingly lead us in the right direction.

As Bishop explains, “Emerson believed firmly and at a depth below the reach of criticism that this law was intrinsic to the soul . . . that the individual enjoyed the soul fully only when his actions included this moral element as a defining principle.”

Bishop’s Emerson on the Soul is a deep exploration of Emerson’s thoughts on the soul, his faith in the unbounded power within it, and his abiding belief that “the soul’s emphasis is always right.”

The Gleam of Light Team

Emerson on the Soul
Jonathan Bishop
1964, Harvard University Press

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