"The Over-Soul" is the ninth essay in the 1841 edition of Emerson's Essays, and it remains one of the best sources of information about his faith. In it, he outlines his belief in a God who resides in each of us and whom we can communicate with, without membership in a church or the assistance of an intermediary church official.
The essay begins with two poetic epigraphs. The first is from English philosopher Henry More's "Psychozoia, or, the Life of Soul" (1647). More believes that moral ideas are innate in us. When we are born, we possess already the moral character that shapes our actions for the rest of our lives. Today, this idea is generally dismissed as too simplistic, for More does not consider what impact a person's environment and upbringing have on behavior.
Emerson chose this selection from More's poem because it addresses directly the soul that each of us has, plus the soul of God that encompasses all of ours. According to More, our souls — the many — partake of God's soul, what Emerson calls "the eternal One." The passage begins a theme evident throughout the essay, the theme of the many and the one. Here, Emerson focuses on our souls, but in other essays this theme includes humanity's participating in nature: All objects are part of nature's whole, but each is particular in itself. Without the many, there could not be the one; without the one, there could not be the many.
Emerson's own poem, later published separately and titled "Unity," completes the epigraph to the essay. In it, Emerson focuses on two major themes. The first theme is the idea of duality — that certain objects contrast naturally with each other. For instance, Emerson includes "east and west," "sod and stone," and "Night and Day" in his poem. Although the paired objects are opposites, both are needed if a condition of wholeness is to exist. The second theme is the force that energizes creation, what Emerson terms "a power / That works its will on age and hour." This power he will call the "Over-Soul," which is a different name for the same force that is present — but unnamed — in More's poem. This changing of names might be confusing, but we need only remember that Emerson is discussing the force that he feels is in every animate and inanimate object in the universe — namely, the presence of God.
The following discussion of "The Over-Soul" is divided into five sections. In the first section (paragraphs 1-3), Emerson provides a general introduction, informing us of his intent to define the Over-Soul. In the second section (paragraphs 4-10), he defines this universal spirit but admits that, ultimately, it can be known only through moral actions, not language. The third section (paragraphs 11-15) addresses the relationship between the Over-Soul and society, and the fourth (paragraphs 16-21) focuses on how the Over-Soul is revealed to us. The essay concludes with a discussion of how the Over-Soul manifests itself in individuals (paragraphs 22-30).
Because Emerson does not include headings to help guide readers, you should number each paragraph with a pencil since we will discuss the different sections of the essay with reference to individual paragraphs.