The Elitism of Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson declared in his thought-provoking essay “The Over-Soul” that “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” (Emerson 52). He elucidates that inside every person is a soul, and within each one of our souls contains God. Contrary to his training at Harvard Divinity School, someone does not need to go to church, or even read the Bible to be close with God. Emerson said that every person has it within their power to reach a level of transcendence and a connection with God within themselves.

But does he really mean that EVERYONE has this potential?

Emerson repeats several times throughout the essay that the soul is “present in all persons,” (56) and talks about what “every man” (54) feels, as though they are universal feelings. It would seem that he does mean to include everyone. He says, “There is a certain wisdom of humanity which is common to the greatest men with the lowest” (56). Emerson believes that all people have this potential wisdom in common, and later on that same page, he goes on to say, “The mind is one, and the best minds, who love truth for its own sake, think much less of property in truth” (56). He does not value the rich above the poor; material things are not of interest to him, but he does point out a distinct difference in the “best minds.” Some minds are clearly above others.

He also discusses those who would appear to be just average people. “What we commonly call man, the eating, drinking, planting, counting man, does not, as we know him, represent himself, but misrepresents himself” (53). While the wealth of a person is not of his concern, there are those who must spend much of their waking hours working in order to support themselves and their family. He who does not have the time to ponder questions of the soul certainly cannot be considered one of the best minds. Emerson claims that this type of person “misrepresents himself.” While all people might indeed have the potential to achieve transcendence, certain things in life, like working for a living, can get in the way of that. Emerson was a philosopher, and he could afford to spend all his time thinking and writing about all these big ideas and when “[the soul] breathes through his intellect, it is genius” (61).

I do not think that Emerson was intentionally elitist, but the content of what he is writing about and his striving for nonconformity lead to something that is exclusionary and elitist even if it is not what he meant. It would seem that he was too blinded by his own “genius” to see who truly was included and excluded in his philosophy. He has such a highly idealized conception of an individual which is impossible for everyone to achieve. He never completely articulates it, but undoubtedly, not everyone will be able to reach transcendence.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Elitism of Emerson

  1. Tracy Encizo says:

    Very interesting post! The Over-Soul is a fascinating essay and it’s so cool you are using it in a political science blog.

    Here’s my take on Emerson and the Over-Soul. Emerson revered nature and believed that we are all connected to one another. Although obviously brilliant and admiring of those who possess “genius”, I think Emerson valued spiritual insight over mere reason and logic, nature over possessions and empty dogma. He placed a much higher value on non-conformity than religious traditions and his philosophy embodies the very essence of American individualism. I feel his beliefs about man’s inherent goodness and his admiration for simplicity marks him as a non-elitist. Here he seems to be saying that each of us is good enough to communicate with God one-on-one:

    “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the Universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?”

    Friedrich Nietzsche was an admiring, lifelong enthusiast of Emerson’s work and shared his belief in individual power and destiny over conformity. Nietzsche’s Ubermensch has a lot in common with the Over-Soul. The Ubermensch is a non-conformist hero; anti-nationalist, anti-bigotry, and anti-religion, definitely not elitist. In Gay Science he wrote, “Good Europeans” are “homeless free-spirits who are too multiple and too mixed in race and descent… to participate in that mendacious racial self-aggrandisement and ill-breading that proclaims itself a sign of the German way of life…” (377). Hitler stole from the Ubermensch philosophy, however, Nietzsche was not anti-Semitic and died before Hitler came to power.

    I don’t see Emerson as an elitist in Over-Soul, but as a man who champions the everyday person who, instead of compromise and lifeless conformity, chooses life according to their terms. Even middle-class people such as myself, who must work to provide for a family, can choose to break free from whatever chains I wish, commune with God, and be free.

    Thanks again for the post on Emerson.

  2. Wunderkynd says:

    Wonderful post! Emerson is highly complex and I love how you are breaking down his argument here. His whole argument that the soul IS God is really incredible, and it explains a lot of his argument behind his self-reliance essay.

    I agree with you in that I don’t think Emerson believed that everyone could reach transcendence. I do think that he thought everyone had potential, however. Everyone one, whether rich or poor, has the same makings, but it is more a matter what one does with themselves.

    Your interpretation of his quote on “the eating, drinking, planting, counting man” is very interesting. Are all of us, who must work to live, doomed to non-transcendence? When I read this, I have the feeling that that isn’t his intention. If a man thoughtlessly goes through the daily grind, then he definitely represents himself. If, however, he instead is acutely aware of why and what he does and makes decisions that effect his daily routines with his soul in mind, then that is a man who is true to his self and his God.

  3. lgallar1 says:

    This is very interesting. I have never read any of this gentlemen’s work, now I am curious. I do agree everyone has their own spiritual connection, you do not have to have a certain religion. As well, everyone has a soul but not many question its existence.

  4. ajgoldsmith says:

    Thank you for your post. It was enjoyable to read about Emerson’s philosophy in a time when it may be more needed than when he was writing. I think that Emerson’s statements reflect the idea that we all have it within us to become better than we are now. This is quite contrary to the prevailing notion of the day that one’s intelligence or abilities determine where they are placed in society (i.e. the capitalist hierarchy). Emerson provides the groundwork for the small d democrat notion that humanity is capable of working together, as a whole, to achieve great things. I agree with this notion because it seems that when people are given the opportunity to do the things that they love, they excel all expectations and challenge the framework of the selfish for the end of self. Therefore, it is a shame when employment or the “real world” gets in the way of fulfilling this potential to create the greatest self with the other that one can. This is what I believe Emerson is referring to when he says that some people “misrepresent” themselves. They are not given the opportunity or time of leisure to be able to read works like Emerson’s “The Over-Soul” and take classes like the ones that we get to. Without these opportunities, people misrepresent themselves because they are not the best selves that they can become. If that is considered elitism, then that is one that I would gladly ascribe to because it is inviting to those who want to be educated, helps provide the opportunities for that education, and recognizes that there is always more work to be done to improve ourselves and our world.

  5. What a great post! Thank you for that read and I agree to many of the views. I think that the more education people learn about their own rights or law in general helps them become better people. That sounds bad but it is true to say knowing that we always look for someone to help represent us. I also agree that we do not need a certain religion to be viewed the same and I am a big ” pro choice ” person. Thank you again!

  6. seancity971 says:

    this was an excellent post and thank you for posting it but im sorry to say i just do not understand the whole “over soul” image. It is hard to visualize something when i do not really believe in things of the matter. I am sure that Emerson feels he has cracked the universal code to everyone being happy and independently successful by being in touch with this soul but I simply do not understand it. His writings are beautiful and his voice is pristine but his message is unclear to me.

  7. jamietraxler says:

    I think the problem with contemporary thinking is the fact that we’re still reading writers that were old and came from a different time. Emerson, Paine, Madison, everyone who we’ve been reading lately writes from the perspective of the white privileged male and the time period that they are in. It’s not an excuse, but it’s just a fact. I think that maybe contemporaries shouldn’t be so critical to point out that it’s exclusionary, racist, factually inaccurate or any other critique just because it doesn’t apply to today, or in particular our own lives. I myself, am a hispanic woman. So my version of the “over soul’ would be a whole lot different than Emerson’s. And that’s okay. Personally, I thought that the Over Soul was a complete joke and it was clearly the thoughts of Emerson’s drug use. Yes, it was beautifully written, but it was bologna. But that doesn’t mean that just because I can’t grasp it, or understand it that his merit gets taken away. In his world, there is an Over Soul and anyone can achieve it. No critique changes that.

  8. amkavana says:

    Although I haven’t read this piece by Emerson, I have read others, as well as other philosophical works through Barrett’s the Human Event. I appreciate your acknowledgement that the elitism may not be intentional, because I feel the same way. There tends to be a common theme within philosophical writings, or even when talking about philosophical topics such as the soul, that an elitist tone is adopted. It may be that people that hold a deep interest in philosophy also by some weird coincidence of commonalities tend to write that way, or it might just be because of the intentionally vague vocabulary that has to be used when talking about intangible concepts. As someone simultaneously interested in aspects of philosophy and often accused of being ‘blunt’, I wonder which is the case.

Leave a Reply