One Big Soul

Maybe all men got one big soul where everybody’s a part of–all faces of the same man: one big self.
-- Terence Malik, The Thin Red Line

The eyes are the windows of the soul, as the saying goes. If you have a mind to see, you might be startled to discover that the soul peering back at you through the eyes of another is none other than your own. That could be because there is only one soul held in common by all of humanity. If you aren’t prepared for it, the effect can be quite unnerving. There is at once a shock of recognition and the incongruity of seeing something so intimately familiar in a stranger’s face. You may wonder whether everyone can read your mind. If there is only one soul, perhaps we hold our thoughts in common as well. But eventually we are reassured that our thoughts belong to us alone, even if we are lost in them most of the time. It is as if life is a grand spectacle in which God plays every part but is also completely absorbed in each role.

“Jove nods to Jove from behind each of us,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in “The Over-Soul,” his meditation on the idea that “within man is the soul of the whole.” Early in his career as an essayist and lecturer, Emerson had complained that "the foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we--, through their eyes.” The term “over-soul” was an original coinage, first used when Emerson was still a divinity student at Harvard. But the thought behind it is age-old, with elements traceable to Plato and Plotinus among the Greeks, to the Vedas and Bhagavad Gita in Eastern philosophy and to the later German mystics, Meister Eckhart and Jacob Boehme. Even St. Paul could claim some precedence, having explained to the Athenians that God didn’t live in temples made by humankind, since ”in him we live and move and have our being."

Emerson, of course, always insisted on a distinctly American culture, free of the “iron lids” of tradition and foreign (mostly European) influence. Yet here he is seemingly rehashing ancient truths, even if his colleagues and neighbors in Puritan New England viewed him as dangerously unorthodox. But Emerson also insisted on the primacy of “nature” in its broadest sense, as well as on experience derived from direct action in the world. For him, the over-soul was not borrowed truth but fresh observation, harkening back to the brief passage in his first published work in which he recalled walking across a common:

Standing on the bare ground - my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, - all mean egoism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am a part or particle of God."

As Emerson well knew, this “Universal Being” went by many different names in different spiritual traditions: the world-soul of Neo-Platonist philosophy, the Vedic concept of Paramatman (literally Supreme-Soul), Meister Eckhart’s “uncreated ground,” the “bottomless abyss” of Jacob Boehme and Quakerism’s “inner light.” Emerson himself used a variety of terms, more or less interchangeably: the Universal Mind, the Supreme Mind, and the Eternal One, as well as the oversoul. In our own time, Carl Jung has probed the collective unconscious, Teilhard de Chardin has described a universal mind he called the noosphere and the psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli talked of a transpersonal self. All these schools of thought have found new ways of expressing essentially the same idea. But then, if there were only one soul animating the world, you would expect that all those who delve deeply into the mystery of their own being would eventually find themselves in this same place.

Ralph Waldo Emerson,
Acts 17:28

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