Book Summaries Philosophy

The Over-Soul Summary

Defining the Soul

The philosophy of six thousand years has not searched the chambers and magazines of the soul. In its experiments there has always remained, in the last analysis, a residuum it could not resolve.

In The Oversoul, which may have played a big part in inspiring Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Emerson discusses his religious beliefs and thoughts on the human intellect. At first, he defines the Over-Soul as the existence of God within us, or of a kind of intelligence that is beyond us.

To understand it more clearly, he writes about what a soul is. It is not our biological faculties, it is not our brain, our intellect, or our will – all these things are animated by the soul.

Truth and creativity are not egoistical products, they are beyond the individual, in that we do not discover them because of our individuality, but because we share something that is divine with the cosmos, and this allows us to gain access to these truths.


Some people gain access to Revelation, these are the announcements of the soul, and are accompanied by the emotions of the sublime. There is a kind of ecstasy and trance that follows from these realizations.

Let man, then, learn the revelation of all nature and all thought to his heart; this, namely; that the Highest dwells with him; that the sources of nature are in his own mind, if the sentiment of duty is there. But if he would know what the great God speaketh, he must ‘go into his closet and shut the door,’ as Jesus said. God will not make himself manifest to cowards. He must greatly listen to himself, withdrawing himself from all the accents of other men’s devotion. Even their prayers are hurtful to him, until he have made his own.

Revelations are perceptions of an absolute law.

They are solutions of the soul’s own questions. They do not answer the questions which the understanding asks. The soul answers never by words, but by the thing itself that is inquired after.

Connection to the Over-Soul

The more we listen to our biological tendencies, the weaker our intuition becomes, while the closer we get the Over-Soul, the greater our moral and mental gain.

This Over-Soul is also a manifestation of an objective morality that is understood by all people. It is when two people have a conversation, and the bond that unites them is not social – it is impersonal, there is something deeper that they share and that is superior to both.

In all conversation between two persons, tacit reference is made, as to a third party, to a common nature. That third party or common nature is not social; it is impersonal; is God.

Society causes a rift between our souls and the Over-Soul. This is like Freud’s idea of the Ego and Superego.

The salvation of the individual does not come by asking about their spiritual future, what will become of them when they die, because language is incapable of answering these questions. The only path that we can take is to work and live, and work and live.

Some people are naturally virtuous, they are more in touch with the Over-Soul than others, and this shows in their character, and in their behavior. And it is possible for individuals to recognize truth when they see it, this is not an arbitrary matter that rests on differences of opinion.

The soul is the perceiver and revealer of truth. We know truth when we see it, let skeptic and scoffer say what they choose. Foolish people ask you, when you have spoken what they do not wish to hear, ‘How do you know it is truth, and not an error of your own?’ We know truth when we see it, from opinion, as we know when we are awake that we are awake.

True Knowledge

A final point is on the authenticity of a message, and an allusion to the primacy of art and subjective experience. Emerson elevates the poets who speak from within over those who speak from without.

Those who speak from without are philosophers like Kant, Locke, and Spinoza – they are great talkers, but the “fervent mystic” who is overwhelmed and half-insane under the influence of the infinitude of his thought belongs to a different class of individuals, those who speak from within.

To Emerson, it is not so difficult to imitate, to become a scholar who looks at things objectively – but someone like Jesus, who spoke from within, transcends the first group of intellectuals. The latter group is less conscious about their own creation, it is as if they are listening to the voice of their soul and are obeying its orders.

See how the deep, divine thought reduces centuries, and millenniums, and makes itself present through all ages. Is the teaching of Christ less effective now than it was when first his mouth was opened? The emphasis of facts and persons in my thought has nothing to do with time. And so, always, the soul’s scale is one; the scale of the senses and the understanding is another.

A lot of what we think of as wisdom, is not really wisdom, and the most illuminated people are superior to literary fame – they are not writers. Of the many writers and scholars, we notice that there is nothing intimidating or glorious about them. They seem to take credit for their wisdom, but they do not know where this wisdom comes from – it is almost accidental. And their talent is often a vice rather than a virtue, because it stands in the way of truth.

Emerson is telling us that the wisdom of humanity is far superior to any individual, and those individuals that think of truths as something they can own and take credit for, or who use their faculties of reason and rhetoric in expert way, are not conduits of truth – they are often something far more sinister and destructive.

The mind is one, and the best minds, who love truth for its own sake, think much less of property in truth. They accept it thankfully everywhere, and do not label or stamp it with any man’s name, for it is theirs long beforehand, and from eternity. The learned and the studious of thought have no monopoly of wisdom

There can be parallels drawn here between the figure of Zarathustra and Emerson’s commentary on this kind of intellectual.

Among the multitude of scholars and authors, we feel no hallowing presence; we are sensible of a knack and skill rather than of inspiration; they have a light, and know not whence it comes, and call it their own; their talent is some exaggerated faculty, some overgrown member, so that their strength is a disease. In these instances the intellectual gifts do not make the impression of virtue, but almost of vice; and we feel that a man’s talents stand in the way of his advancement in truth.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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