Emerson's Essays By Ralph Waldo Emerson Summary and Analysis of The Over-Soul Paragraphs 4-10 - The Over-Soul Is Defined

Admitting that the Over-Soul cannot be known through language, Emerson defines the Over-Soul by clarifying what it is not, a stylistic device that he uses throughout the essay. According to him, "All goes to show that the soul in man is not an organ . . . is not a function . . . is not a faculty . . . is not the intellect or the will . . ." Although the soul is none of these, it uses them for its purposes. For example, the soul is not an organ, but it animates all organs; although not a faculty, it uses all of them; it is not the intellect or the will, but the master of them. The soul is the force that uses all of these items for right action, but this force is not the items themselves: "Language cannot paint it with his colors."

Emerson explains how the soul "abolishes" time and place, two worries of society that limit the fullness of our existence. We depend too much on our physical senses rather than on our spiritual resources. This dependency has so overpowered our minds that our intuition, the faculty responsible for our spirituality, is rendered useless. Emerson offers limited hope for this all-too-human flaw when he acknowledges that there are still some thoughts that transcend time, including the love of beauty. Although each generation might define beauty differently, nevertheless each one of us seeks what we perceive as beautiful. And it is the action of seeking, not the objects of beauty themselves, that is eternal.

An idea can transcend time because the soul advances by an "ascension of state"; we gain a deeper understanding of truth not by anything physical, but through our minds. The greater insight we gain into the spirit that connects everything in our world, the closer we come to the Over-Soul. Emerson calls this increasingly deeper understanding "the law of moral and of mental gain," for our union with the Over-Soul is directly linked to our actions: The more we accept this force in our lives, the more moral we become, and the more moral acts we will perform.

The theme of duality is present in this section, not only in Emerson's claiming what the Over-Soul is and is not, but also in the battle between the Over-Soul and our physical senses. However, these examples of duality are slightly different and more important than previous examples because they demonstrate how the Over-Soul actually overpowers its opposition: ". . . the soul's scale is one; the scale of the senses and the understanding is another. Before the revelations of the soul, Time, Space and Nature shrink away."

Because the themes of duality and definition are so important to Emerson, he ends this section by recalling what the soul is not — and, therefore, what it is. Also, the reference to a child and virtues is a familiar and favorite theme of his.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

Emerson believes that the scholar's duties are all comprised in what?




Quiz