Summary and Analysis of The Over-Soul Paragraphs 16-21


Although Emerson claims that God is within us, he faces the problem of explaining how we come to recognize this existence. His answer lies in what he terms Revelation, "an influx of the Divine mind into our mind." Note that he does not use the plural "minds" to describe our collective thinking, but opts for the singular "mind" to emphasize the bond that links all of the individual members of humankind together as one. He supports his belief in Revelation by providing examples of its presence in various religions, including Moravianism, Calvinism, and Methodism. Despite the differences between these disparate theologies, they all demonstrate the Over-Soul's revelation, in which "the individual soul always mingles with the universal soul" in a state of ecstatic understanding.

The theme of action versus language is of primary importance in this section. We can ask why the world is as it is, and we can ask what will happen to our souls once we die, but the Over-Soul never responds to these inquiries using language. Recalling Christ's disciples, Emerson notes that they maintained through their actions — not merely their words — the divine plan of God set forth by Christ. Although we think it is natural to ask about our spiritual future, such questions are futile because any answer requires a language that we cannot understand. Emerson's response to this questioning might seem rather harsh and dogmatic: "These questions which we lust to ask about the future, are a confession of sin. God has no answer to them. No answer in words can reply to a question of things." However, Emerson's suggestions are typical of his independent and earnest character: We should not inquire about our spiritual future; rather, we should "work and live, work and live," for responsible actions are what will secure our immortality.

Just as we should not worry ourselves about the future, so should we not concern ourselves with each other's actions. Each person, alone, is responsible for the actions that will or will not ensure his or her salvation. Although he does not say so directly, Emerson condemns Calvinism, which adheres to the belief that God has decided already which souls to save — the "elect" — even before people are born. Calvinist theology asserts that we are born sinful, and that the only possibility of redemption lies with God, and not in any of our earthly actions. Claiming that no person has the credentials to judge others' actions, Emerson contrasts his own beliefs — basically Unitarian — to those of Calvinism.