THEOSOPHY, Vol. 24, No. 2, December, 1935
(Pages 49-54; Size: 17K)
(Number 3 of a 7-part series)



MANY attempts have been made to compare the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson with other systems of thought. When it is compared with Theosophy, a new point of view must be taken. For Theosophy is not a philosophy, but the Root-Source from which all philosophies have sprung. It is not the result of one man's speculation, but the synthesis of the knowledge of the ages which has been accumulated, recorded and preserved by a long line of Adepts. It is a complete whole, and admits of no comparison with anything less than itself. All that can be done, in the case of a single philosopher, is to examine the fruit of his mind in order to see if it was grown in the Garden of Wisdom.

Many are the Gardeners who have nurtured the Tree of Knowledge which grows in the midst of this Garden. The Theosophist knows Them as the Mahatmas. Emerson described Them in these words:

"I cannot recite the laws of the intellect without remembering that lofty and sequestered class of men who have been its prophets and oracles, the high priesthood of pure reason, the Trismegisti, the expounders of the principles of thought from age to age. The truth and grandeur of their thought is proved by its scope and applicability, for it commands the entire schedule and inventory of things for its illustration."
In the teachings of these "great spiritual lords" as Emerson calls Them, certain fundamental concepts appear as the central sun around which the entire system of philosophical thought revolves. They are epitomized in a few pages of the Secret Doctrine as the "Three Fundamental Propositions" and are summarized by Emerson in the three Essays which are the most widely read of all his works: The Over-soul, Compensation, and Self-Reliance.

The First Fundamental Proposition treats of that Unity which lies behind all diversity -- That which contains all and pervades all, That from which all proceeds and into which all eventually is absorbed. Emerson realized the philosophical necessity of such a concept. Finding no satisfactory expression of it in the religious teachings of his own day and race, he sought for it within the philosophy of the ancient Aryans. The method he pursued in his search for the Causeless Cause which lies behind all causes is outlined in the Katha Upanishad:

"Than the powers, the impulses are higher;
Than the impulses, Mind is higher;
Than Mind, Soul is higher; than Soul, the Great Self.
Than the Great Self, the Unmanifest is higher;
Than the Unmanifest, Spirit is higher;
This is the end, the supreme way."
Emerson's Westernized version of this Eastern teaching is found in his essay on Plato:
"The mind is urged to ask for one Cause of many effects; then for the cause of that; and again the cause, diving still into the profound; self-assured that it shall arrive at an Absolute and sufficient one; a One that shall be All."
In that deep force, he says, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin. Being behind the power of analysis,beyond the range and reach of thought and speech, Emerson was too wise to attempt to describe it.
"Of that ineffable Essence which we call Spirit, he that thinks most will say least. When we try to describe it, both language and thought desert us. That Essence refuses to be recorded. Language cannot paint it with colors. It is too subtle. It is undefinable, unmeasurable, but we know that it pervades and contains us."
Then, starting with that basic Unity as a postulate, he watched the One become many, and affirmed the necessity of both Unity and diversity.
"Every chemical substance, every plant, every animal in its growth, teaches the Unity of Cause, the variety of appearance."
Nature appeared to him as a shadow, indicating the presence of the sun behind, suggesting the Absolute, yet never defining it. The various substances out of which Nature's forms are compounded might seem to be divided at their base, yet in their summits they are all united:
"The Same, the Same; friend and foe are of one stuff; the ploughman, the plough and the furrow are of one stuff; and the stuff is such, and so much, that the variations of form are unimportant."
"All is One" he repeats again and again, "the act of seeing, the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object." Spirit lurks in every form and beckons to Spirit in every other form. And that in which all things are united is:
"...that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man'sparticular nature is contained and made one with all other: that common heart, of which all conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission."
The Second fundamental basic idea of Emerson's philosophy is found in his recognition of the Universe as a boundless plane, periodically the playground of numberless Universes incessantly manifesting and disappearing. In "The American Scholar" he says:
"There is never a beginning, there is never an end to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always a circular power returning to itself. Therein it resembles man's own spirit, whose beginning, whose ending, he can never find."
Emerson's recognition of the Law of Periodicity paved the way for his acceptance of the fact that duality pervades all natural processes. The whole of nature appeared to him as bisected by an inevitable dualism, so that each thing perceived is only a half, and demands another half to make it a whole:
"Polarity, or action and reaction, we meet in every part of nature; in darkness and light; in heat and cold; in the ebb and flow of waters; in male and female; in the inspiration and expiration of plants and animals; in the systole and diastole of the heart; in the centrifugal and centripetal gravity; in the undulations of fluids and of sound; in electricity, galvanism and chemical affinity."
The human mind, with its separative tendency, constantly tries to dissociate these two halves and to consider one without its relation to the other. But Nature refuses to be thus divided. The parted water re-unites behind our hand. We can no more act without feeling the reaction than we can hope to find an inside without an outside, a top without a bottom. Not even spirit and matter can be thought of as things in themselves, for they are but two aspects of one and the same thing:
"Once men thought Spirit divine, and Matter diabolical; now science and philosophy recognize the parallelism, the approximation, the unity of the two; how each reflects the other as face answers to face in a glass; nay, how the laws of both are one."
The Law of Action and Reaction, when applied to the moral plane, becomes, according to Emerson, a sort of multiplication table, which, turn it as we will, forever balances itself. Every crime will be punished, every virtue rewarded, every wrong redressed, in silence and certainty:
"What we call Retribution is the universal necessity by which the whole appears whenever a part appears. The causal retribution is in the thing, and is seen by the soul. The retribution in the circumstance is seen by the understanding; is inseparable from the thing, but is often spread over a long time, and so does not become distinct until after many years. Cause and effect, means and end, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the fruit in the seed."
The really wise man, he says, will extend this lesson to every department of his life, and realize that it is the part of prudence to pay his debts on whatever plane. Persons and events may seem to stand for a time between a man and justice. But this is only a postponement, for sooner or later the man must pay.

This passage might give the impression that Emerson was a fatalist, that he considered man to be the helpless victim of his own previous actions. But Emerson's views of Karma were purely Theosophical, as is shown in this passage from his Transcendentalist:

"You think me the child of my circumstances. I make my circumstances.Let any thought or motive of mine be different from what they are, the difference will transform my condition. You call it the power of circumstance. But it is the power of me!"
The Third Fundamental Proposition of the Secret Doctrine presents a picture of the vast sweep of evolution, from the elemental kingdoms up to the holiest archangel. All is Life. The idea of "dead matter" is inconceivable. Every spark that issues from that pure Essence -- the Over-soul -- is intelligent, and evolution consists in the unfoldment of that intelligence. In his Essay on "Nature" Emerson presents the same view:
"There is a latent omniscience not only in man, but in every particle. There is a force in every creature that impels it to ascend to higher forms of life. Plants are the young of the world, but they grope ever upward towards consciousness."
Emerson's radical views on "living matter" as opposed to the "dead matter" theory of the science of his day were not in the least disturbed by the publication of the "Origin of Species" in 1859. He still continued to assert that Science, by confining its speculations to matter and ignoring Spirit, could never reach ultimate truth; and that Religion, by limiting itself to Spirit and ignoring matter, was in the same condition. He saw that something was needed which took both into account and offered a basis of reconciliation. This basis he offered to the world as his Ideal Theory.

The trouble with Science, as he points out in "The Poet" is that it is purely sensual, and therefore superficial. The true scientist must deal with forms according to the life within if he hopes to fathom the secrets of Nature. He turned again to the East for a corroboration of his scientific theories and prophesied that "the avatars(1) of Brahma will presently be the text-books on natural history." In his Journal of 1866 he gives a dissertation on the Eastern views of Science, and shows how Science can perform its real function only when it learns to separate the real from the unreal and arrives at the contemplation of the One Life and the One Cause.

As both Nature and man are rooted in the same identical Essence, as both emanated from the same neutral center to re-merge into it at the end of the cycle, where then lies the difference between the two? It is contained in a single word. The kingdoms below man are conscious; man is self-conscious. The "Soul" of man is that permanent principle in him which changes not, but which is able to perceive the changes going on around him.

"The soul in man is not an organ, but animates and exercises all organs. It is not a function, like the power of memory, of calculation, of comparison, but uses these as hands and feet. It is not a faculty, but a light. It is not the intellect or the will, but the Master of the intellect and the will. It is the vast background in which they lie, an immensity not possessed and that cannot be possessed."
Emerson called the Soul in man the Thinker and Actor, the Observer, the Perceiver and Revealer of Truth. He considered it as immutable, superior to its knowledge, the God Within;
"When it breathes through his intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through his will, it is virtue; when it flows through his affection it is love; and the blindness of the intellect begins when it would be something of itself."
Emerson considered the Soul as an evolving, becoming entity. Its advances, he says, are not made by gradation, such as can be expressed by motion in a straight line, but rather by an ascension of state. There are stairs on the ladder of evolution, he continues, which we have already climbed; but there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. How can these stairs be climbed save through the process of Reincarnation? It is apparent that Emerson considered this idea as the only logical one:
"The soul having often been born, having beheld the things that are here, those which are in heaven and those which are beneath, there is nothing of which she has not gained the knowledge. No wonder that she is able to recollect what formerly she knew."
Soul-growth means a growth in perception, in knowledge, and in the realization of our own inherent perfection. The way to this realization lies within ourselves, and can be brought about only through our own "self-induced and self-devised efforts." The clarion-tone of Self-Reliance rings through the entire philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson like a deep organ-point. It reached him in his boyhood like a faint echo from the past, and he intoned it steadily throughout his entire life.

Self-Reliance meant to him a reliance upon the God within. He found all the virtues comprehended in the word Self-Trust, and was convinced that there would come a time in the life of every man when he would have to take himself for better or worse; when he would realize that "no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given him to till." Every heart in the Universe, he says, vibrates to the iron string "Trust Thyself!"

Self-reliance is the very sap of the man-tree. That sap must be kept flowing constantly -- upward and downward -- striving ceaselessly toward the higher, conquering daily the lower:

"Ah brother, hold fast to the man and awe the beast; stop the ebb of thy soul -- ebbing downward into the forms into whose habits thou hast now for many years slid."
Ralph Waldo Emerson sounded the battle-cry to the warrior-soul, the trumpet blast that spurs each man into action. That which energizes the warrior is his own power of Self-Reliance, his capacity to move from the spiritual center within, his determination to sacrifice the lower to the higher. The end of the battle will surely come when
"...the soul is raised over passion. It seeth identity and Eternal Causation. It is a perceiving what Truth and Right are. Hence it becomes a Tranquillity."

Next article:
Precursors of H.P.B.
Robert Browning's "Paracelsus"
(Part 4 of 7)


COMPILER'S NOTE: I added this footnote; it was not in the article. If it doesn't paint an accurate enough picture, or is incorrect, I hope the Editors of THEOSOPHY magazine will spot it and point it out to me, so that I can make the necessary corrections.

(1) "Avatars" are great Adepts. "Brahma" is the impersonal Absolute principle in the Universe, the ALL.
Back to text.

Main Page | Introductory Brochure | Volume 1--> Setting the Stage
Karma and Reincarnation | Science | Education | Economics | Race Relations
The WISDOM WORLD | World Problems & Solutions | The People*s Voice | Misc.