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.”

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...

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