“Far or forgot to me is near.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Brahma (1856)
While Ralph Waldo Emerson’s profound fascination with Eastern philosophy manifests throughout the entirety of his writings, this specific interest is perhaps the most palatable in “The Over-Soul,” an essay first published in 1841. As Emerson probes the depths of different spiritual relationships in this particular piece, his meandering reflection unfolds into an existential inquiry concerning the nature of the human soul. During this process, Emerson refers to several historical giants of the Occident, including Plato, Plutarch, and Plotinus. But, true to transcendentalist fashion, Emerson reaches “a little beyond” the traditional limits of Western canon. For instance, Emerson echoes the core beliefs of Vedantism, the school of Hindu philosophy that addresses the diverse interactions between Brahman (“metaphysical reality”), Ātman or Jiva (“the soul” or “inner self”), and Prakṛti (“nature”) (Richardson 55-56). Emerson even lifts a phrase from the Upanishads, an ancient philosophical text that was written in Sanskrit but functions as sacred literature within Buddhism and Sikhism in addition to Hinduism (Olivelle xxiii): “The simplest person who in his integrity worships God, becomes God” (Emerson 172).
Although a historical trend in Orientalism could have prompted Emerson to pursue his study of the Upanishads—the original English translation of the text appeared sometime around 1801—there is another reason why Emerson could have chosen to turn to the East (Renard 177-78). That is, the aspects of Hinduism that appealed to Emerson on a personal level were barred by Western philosophy’s sterile detachment and dispassion. While a journey from New England to India seems improbable to many, this type of intellectual pilgrimage is actually a common phenomenon. As Robert Brown explains in a segment produced by The School of Life, many individuals in the West still find solace in Eastern thought. Brown states, “It is not as if the West does not have a long and deep engagement with the sorrows of life, but like so many spiritually curious people, [they] didn’t end up engaging with [their own] culture [. . .] This decision tells us something hugely important about the way the Western world handles, or more accurately, mishandles its culture.” To this end, Emerson touches upon names like Plato and Aristotle but ultimately discovers a sense of enlightenment in the ancient pages of the Upanishads. Paraphrasing Brown’s YouTube lecture, the academic institutions of the West have failed society by treating culture as abstract scholarship rather than as a practical tool for living and dying. Philosophies such as Vedantism, however, differ in this regard. “They’re on a mission to help you find your way through challenges of existence,” says Brown.
In this way, Emerson’s decision to introduce his New England sphere of influence to Eastern philosophy represents an attempt to repair the divide between the East and West. His writings, while lofty and winding, demonstrate his intention to provide normal people with the introspective devices to reveal the light of life within themselves. “The great figures of Western culture almost all wanted culture to function as an instrument for the pursuit of a wiser life,” quotes Brown, “much as the Eastern tradition has always believed.”
Brown, Robert, and Aru Q’n. Eastern vs. Western Philosophy. YouTube, The School of Life, 9 May 2016.
Olivelle, Patrick. UpanisÌ£Ads. Oxford University Press, 1998.
Renard, Philip. Non-Dualism: the Direct Liberation Road. Felix, 2005.
Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: the Mind on Fire. University of California Press, 1995.