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.