Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 579
Greatly influenced by a third century neoplatonist philosopher, Plotinus, “The Over-Soul” explicates one of Emerson’s essential ideas, one on which his entire thought is based. Beginning with an approval of a life based on hope, Emerson posits the idea of unity or “Over-Soul” as the metaphysical basis for the existence of everything. According to him, the Over-Soul is a perfect self-sufficing universal force, the origin of which is unknown and the essence of which is characterized through wisdom, virtue, power, and beauty, giving sustenance to all objects. Maintained by this force, all objects are thus self-sufficient in every moment of their existence, having no need to concern themselves with the future. With no hearkening back to the past and no anticipation of the future, the meaning of one’s ever-progressive life simply exists in the “here and now.”
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Because of the unifying power of the Over-Soul, differences between objects can be eradicated: “The act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one.” In explaining the nature of this universal spirit, Emerson makes a distinction between the natural self—the body and its faculties—and the transcendental spirit residing in each individual and animating the natural self. This transcendental spirit, he emphasizes, cannot be defined by the intellect; it can be detected only with the intuition. A child, who acts according to instinct, is thus celebrated as the model for the reception of this spirit.
As the ultimate force in this universe, the Over-Soul ought to be obeyed as the absolute commander of the self, as it can guide one to lead a most sound life. The movement of the universe, in this sense, can be interpreted as the ceaseless communication between each individual soul and the Over-Soul. The more one communicates with the universal soul, the more powerful one may become. Jesus, who, according to Emerson, heeded the voice from the spirit within oneself, is held as a perfect example of such a communication between the individual soul and the Over-Soul. A genius is simply the person who lets the spirit flow into the intellect and then speaks from within. In order to communicate with this universal spirit, one needs only to be plain and true, as it normally descends upon the lowly and simple, the type of people who consistently received Emerson’s attention after the composition of Nature.
Echoing a statement from the Hindu sacred text, the Upanishads, Emerson maintains that one may also partake of divinity from communicating with the divine force: “The simplest person who in his integrity worships God, becomes God.” The presence of this universal spirit in each individual thus makes it imperative for one to look not without but within for the source of inspiration.
Viewed in this light, the greatness of renowned poets lies thus in their ability to remind people of the immense resource under their control and to instruct them to disregard all their achievements. All exterior authority, be what it may, Emerson states, should be disregarded; only the self guided by the Over-Soul is to be trusted. The orthodox faith based on exterior authority is interpreted at the end of the essay as a result of the withdrawal of the soul and the decline of religion. To be a master of the world around him, Emerson concludes, a person has to achieve unity with the divine soul and follow the dictate of his or her own heart.