Emerson, Evolution, and Transmigration
by Robert C. Gordon, PhD
Although Ralph Waldo Emerson broke with his Unitarian faith in 1832,
he was enough a product of Christian theology to still retain its conceptions
of time, of history, and of human origins. During the 1840s, he rejected
this deep structure of the Christian world-view, and became the first
to conceive the idea that the spiritual transformation of the individual
played a crucial role in the process of upward evolution. While in his
first book Nature, published in 1836, he had advanced the
more modest conclusion that human spiritual development contributed directly
to social improvement, during the 1840s he went much further, asserting
that individual spiritual progress was vital to evolutionary progress.
Emerson made this metaphysical leap through his brilliant fusion of neo-Platonism,
science, Hegel, and India's philosophy of samsara.
As a result of these powerful influences, Emerson came to believe that
the course of evolution was to create more and more mystically-gifted
individuals, people who were surrendered to the Deep Force and therefore
perfect channels for bringing its spiritual power into the life of everyday.
According to his mature beliefs, when a critical mass of individuals had
evolved far enough to become perfect vehicles of the divine consciousness,
channeling the power of Spirit into the affairs of common experience,
they would inaugurate a Heavenly life here on earth. While Pierre Teilhard
de Chardin and Aurobindo Ghose are often credited as the first to achieve
this metaphysical insight, the palm instead is Emerson's. He advanced
a New World version of just their wisdom decades before either Aurobindo
or Teilhard de Chardin was born.
However, in order to embrace this radical departure from the world-view
of nineteenth century New England, Emerson had first to surmount a formidable
metaphysical roadblock: the myth of the Human Fall, which he inherited
from both his classical and his Christian education. This myth gained
ground as the Roman Empire declined with the rise of Christianity. From
that time forward, ever-greater numbers of people came to believe that
humanity was degraded. Adam and Eve's Fall in the garden of Eden provided
the paradigm for this perspective, a perspective which history, too, seemed
to confirm. As Western civilization entered the Dark Ages, it contrasted
quite unfavorably with the ancient cultures of India, China, Egypt, Persia,
Greece, and Rome. It was impossible to ignore the fact that ancient civilizations
seemed to have been more truly civilized. The inevitable conclusion, confirmed
by the Bible and by history, was that humanity had fallen from a more
perfect state and was in decline.
While the philosophers of the eighteenth century Enlightenment began
the first serious attack on the idea of the Human Fall, it took Emerson
many years of study and reflection before he could overcome this myth
himself. It was the science of geology that prompted his first tentative
steps in this direction. In the early nineteenth century, the Christian
consensus held that the Earth was only about 6,000 years old. James Ussher,
the Archbishop of Armagh, confidently calculated that the earth had been
created in 4,004 B.C.E. As early as 1832, Emerson read widely1in the scientific
works of his day, paying special attention to new discoveries in geology.
Their effect was radically to expand Emerson's sense of time, and to start
him thinking in a new way about human origins.
Unquestionably the most important scientific work Emerson read in the
early 1830s was Sir Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology.2 He
was persuaded by Lyell's argument that supernatural explanations for geologic
phenomena were unnecessary. They could be encompassed within a framework
of scientific explanation, given enough time for these natural processes
to work themselves out. Lyell insisted that the earth must be ancient,
because geologic forces act so slowly. From this time forward, Emerson
rejected Christianity's supernatural creation myth with its 6,000-year
time-table, concluding that earth had been in existence for "durations
Having radically expanded Emerson's sense of time, Lyell performed another
all-important office he introduced Emerson to the idea of the evolution
of the species. It is a common misconception that Darwin originated the
theory of evolution in 1859. In fact, it had been formulated as early
as the eighteenth century. One of its initial proponents was Erasmus Darwin,
Charles' grandfather. The first to develop the idea in any systematic
way, however, was Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, whose theory predated the younger
Darwin's by fifty years. And it was evolution in its Lamarckian form that
Emerson met with in Lyell's pages. While Lyell did not embrace evolution,
and feared that his own work could be read as providing support for what
he considered its materialistic reductionism, he nonetheless discussed
the Frenchman's position in some detail, if only to refute it. This provided
Emerson with a useful summary of Lamarck's central thesis.
Lamarck theorized that the individual organism was of a considerably
malleable character, able gradually to adapt itself to changing external
conditions. These prompted a species, through successive generations of
effort, to develop a new form or organ better adapted to the new conditions.
By means of its own self-directed endeavor, the individual creature could
desist from using an existing organ, progressively modify that organ,
or indeed begin to create an entirely new one. The driving force of evolution
was just this intentional, adaptive exertion on the part of the individual,
because these intentional exertions for betterment were preserved and
passed on to one's progeny through the inheritance of the parent's acquired
characteristics. Unfortunately for Lamarck, his explanation for the workings
of evolution was found eventually to have no scientific basis. His theory
of the inheritance of acquired characteristics proved genetically impossible,
while Darwin's theory of natural selection for positively adaptive genetic
mutations proved scientifically correct. However wrong his mechanics,
Lamarck's idea that lower forms of life had evolved into higher ones profoundly
influenced several thinkers in the early nineteenth century, Emerson among
Emerson's fledgling evolutionary faith began to emerge in his 1834 lecture
"The Relation of Man to the Globe." Emerson gave his Boston
audience a description of humanity's past that expressed both his expanded
sense of time and a nascent evolutionism. "Man," Emerson said,
"is no upstart in the creation, but has been prophesied in nature
for a thousand thousand ages before he appeared." He further explained
that "from times incalculably remote" there had been a "progressive
preparation" for the human species, carried out in the lower or "meaner
creatures" preceding it. Accompanying this development were geological
changes that would eventually make the world habitable by human beings.
"Man," as Emerson told his audience, "was not made sooner,
because his house was not ready."4
In this same lecture, Emerson chronicled the way in which the hard rock
that once surfaced the earth gradually became covered with soils more
hospitable to life. With this development the "first faint traces
of vegetable and animal life begin to appear, and in the lowest strata
the most imperfect forms; zoophytes, shells, and crustaceous animals;
then fishes and reptiles."5 When these rudimentary forms had existed
for some time, "Then a new formation the remains of a new
and higher order begin to appear, more nearly resembling man, and
giving earnest of his approach; and as the new race waxes, the old race
retires."6 As a result of his scientific studies, Emerson concluded
that one of the distinguishing characteristics of the "present age"
was "the study of organic remains," and that "solid learning
is got from the fossils." When we look at the geologic record, he
reflected, there are "No leaps, no magic," but rather the "eternal
tranquil procession of old familiar laws."7
Despite the obvious attractions of evolutionary theory, Emerson at first
remained uncommitted. Even though he understood and expressed some enthusiasm
for evolution in the early 1830s, Nature contained no hint of this
new scientific direction. The most likely explanation for this omission
was Emerson's immersion in the work of Emanuel Swedenborg. Though of unorthodox
stripe, Swedenborg was himself an ardent Christian. He took very seriously
the idea of the Human Fall, which he interpreted to mean that humanity
had, long-ago, closed itself off from the higher planes of its nature.
Living only from the baser animal plane, it became evil. Jehovah manifested
as Jesus to save man from this spiritual death, renewing the broken covenant
between Himself and fallen individuals. This Swedenborgian vision captivated
Emerson during Nature's composition, crowding out his nascent evolutionism.
As a result of his retrograde enthrallment to Swedenborg, it took Emerson
some years to mature from an interested student into an ardent champion
of evolutionary theory.
Though there was no hint of evolution in Nature, shortly after
its publication, in his lecture the "Humanity of Science," Emerson
made a remark that would be prophetic of his future direction:
The system of Lamarck aims to find a monad of organic life which shall
be common to every animal, and which becomes an animalcule, a poplar-worm,
a mastiff, or a man, according to circumstances. It says to the caterpillar,
"How dost thou, Brother! Please God, you shall yet be a philosopher."8
Emerson's choice of a caterpillar is telling, for caterpillars develop
into butterflies, a concept that will be essential, when applied to human
beings, to his mature metaphysics. Indeed, this caterpillar shall reappear.
In the 1849 edition of Nature, it will symbolize Emerson's conversion
to species development through the process of upward evolution. This conversion,
however, lay in the future, and for several years Emerson struggled with
the question of human origins. Was humanity Fallen from a more perfect
state, or had humans evolved from lower forms of life?
Emerson had difficulty accepting evolution because his Swedenborgian
readings and Christian origins trapped him into thinking that spiritual
people believed in the myth of the Fall, while atheistic materialists
held that humans had evolved from lower forms of life. As he set forth
these competing hypotheses, "There are always two histories of man
in literature contending for our faith. One is the scientific or skeptical.
The other is the believer's, the poet's, the faithful history, always
testified by the mystic and the devout."9 Emerson makes clear that
evolutionary theory was the scientific or skeptical explanation. The believer,
by contrast, explained human origins in terms of "the history of
the Fall, of a descent from a superior and pure race, attested in actual
history by the grand remains of elder ages, of a science in the east unintelligible
to the existing population."
Identifying evolution with atheistic materialism, Emerson found the theory
both attractive and threatening. His irresolution on this crucial point
came out clearly in his 1844 essay "Nature." On one page
he said, "Man is fallen; nature is erect, and serves as a differential
thermometer, detecting the presence or absence of the divine sentiment
in man."10 Yet on the next he reversed course,
Geology has initiated us into the secularity of nature, and taught
us to disuse our dame-school measures, and exchange our Mosaic and Ptolemaic
schemes for her large style. We knew nothing rightly, for want of perspective.
Now we learn what weary patient periods must round themselves before
the rock is formed; then before the rock is broken, and the first lichen
race has disintegrated the thinnest external plate into soil, and opened
the door for the remote Flora, Fauna, Ceres, and Pomona to come in.
How far off yet is the trilobite! How far the quadruped! How inconceivably
remote is man! All duly arrive, and then race after race of men. It
is a long way from granite to a woodpecker, farther yet to Plato and
the preaching of the immortality of the soul.11
For some years his irresolution persisted as he wrestled with this question:
"Whether the trilobites or whether the gods are our grandfathers.
Whether the actual existing men are an amelioration or a degradation?"12
When Emerson purchased a copy of Robert Chamber's Vestiges of the
Natural History of Creation, the balance began to tip toward the trilobites.13
Emerson read Vestiges in 1845, the same year he fell so deeply
under the spell of Indian scriptures. Although Chambers criticized Lamarck,
and presented evolution in a more deterministic form than the Frenchman,
he nonetheless advanced Emerson's understanding of evolution's central
idea lower forms of life, over long stretches of time, evolved
into higher ones. Emerson was quite taken with the scientific knowledge
in Chambers' Vestiges, though its pious attempt to reconcile Christian
scripture with evolution left him unimpressed:
Everything in this Vestiges of Creation is good except the theology,
which is civil, timid, & dull. These things which the author so
well collates, ought to be known only to few, and those, masters &
poets. . . .It is curious that all we want in this department is collation;
as soon as the facts are stated we recognize them all as somewhere expressed
in our experience or in history, fable, sculpture or poetry. . . .All
science is transcendental or else passes away. . . .The cyclic or encyclopaediacal
character that science acquires, pleases also & satisfies. The avatars
of Brahma will presently be textbooks of natural history. Well &
it seems there is room for a better species of the genus Homo. The Caucasian
is an arrested undertype.14
This passage is important for several reasons, not the least of which
is its revelation that in 1845, Indian philosophy and evolution began
to bond, a pairing that will form the basis for Emerson's mature philosophy.
The identification of the avatars of Brahma with the textbooks of natural
history foreshadows Emerson's marriage of science and samsara,
their union resulting eventually in his doctrine of transmigratory evolution.
Emerson's "avatars of Brahma" passage is important for an additional
reason. It highlights a key idea Emerson derived from Chambers. "We
owe to every book that interests us one or two words," Emerson reflected.
"Thus to "Vestiges of Creation" we owe "arrested development."15
According to Chambers, a new species appeared only when the physical conditions
appropriate to its stage of evolution made its existence possible. The
environment determined the nature of the organism since physical
conditions "arrested" its development at a particular stage,
giving rise to the character of the specific individual. Thus nature provided
the limiting boundaries of the organism's development. "The trilobium,"
as Emerson unfolded his understanding of this concept, "which is
the eldest of fossil animals, reappears now in the embryonic changes of
crab & lobster. It seems there is a state of melioration, pending
which, the development towards man can go on; which usually is arrested."16
The idea of "arrested development" will form an essential component
of Emerson's mature theory of evolutionary Process.
There is another reason the "avatars of Brahma" passage deserves
attention: its explicit faith in the possibility of "a better species
of the genus Homo." Present humanity was not nature's ultimate creation.
The genus Homo was evolving, too. As Emerson read at the end of Vestiges'
important chapter "Animated Nature," wherein Chambers
discussed the future course of evolution, "There may be occasion
for a nobler type of humanity, which shall complete the geological circle
on this planet, and realize some of the dreams of the purest spirits of
the present race."17 Emerson's heart must have thrilled at this sentence,
because it presents in condensed form a good statement of his mature thinking
on the evolutionary future of the human species.
Despite his enthusiasm for Vestiges of Creation, Emerson still
could not commit himself to the theory of evolution. While attracted by
the logic of its fossil evidence, he was unable to exorcise the specter
of its supposed atheistic materialism. As a result, he simply couldn't
decide between the myth of the Fall and the theory of evolution. He remained,
as late as 1847, irresolute: "It is not determined of man whether
he came up or down: Cherubim or Chimpanzee."18 The balance finally
tipped, in 1848, through the weighty and serendipitous influence of Georg
Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
Emerson's most important Hegelian influence was the work of the American
justist and speculative philosopher Johann Bernard Stallo. Stallo was
a prominent member of the so-called St. Louis Hegelians, and his General
Principles of the Philosophy of Nature reconciled Hegel's Idealistic
philosophy with emergent evolution. Emerson began reading General Principles
in 1848,19 and quoted from it extensively the following year. It proved
a crucial and deciding influence. Also helpful was a conversation, in
1849, with Emmanuel Scherb, a German expatriot then living in Concord.
Emerson recounted it in his journal, "Mr Scherb attempted last night
to unfold Hegel for me and I caught somewhat that seemed cheerful &
large, & that might, & probably did, come by Hindu suggestion."20
Identifying Hegel with Hinduism made Emerson that much more comfortable
in his belief that the German had, indeed, found a spiritual basis for
the theory of evolution.
With the help of Scherb and Stallo's presentations of Hegel, Emerson
came to see that the doctrine of evolution dovetailed perfectly with his
non-dualistic ontology. His Hegelian studies convinced him that non-dualism
and evolution could live together comfortably, in one philosophy. Ever
wary of evolution's materialistic implications, Emerson learned from the
Hegelians that he could accept the teachings of evolution without committing
himself to the skeptic's atheistic materialism. The influence of Hegel's
philosophy came out clearly in a passage that reveals how Emerson made
the leap that carried him into the evolutionary camp:
Every glance at society pale withered people with goldfilled
teeth, with scalps tied on, ghastly, and with minds in the same dilapidated
condition suggests at once the German thought of the Progressive
God, who has got thus far with his experiment, but will get out yet
a triumphant and faultless race.21
Once Emerson grasped Hegel's central idea that the ongoing process
of creation was Spirit progressively revealing Itself he committed
himself wholeheartedly to the principle of evolution. From this time forward,
Emerson accepted Hegel's idea of a "Progressive God," a God
who, as Emerson understood it, revealed His nature in the very process
of evolutionary advance. Thus his Hegelian studies helped Emerson understand
that to accept evolutionary theory did not entail a fall into skeptical
materialism; to see that the process of evolution was itself a manifestation
of Spirit. As Stallo explained Hegel on this point: "Matter is not
a hearth, upon which afterwards the flame of the Spiritual is kindled;
the Spiritual is at once the hearth, the process of combustion, and the
appearing flame."22 Thus Hegel exorcised materialism from evolutionary
theory, convincing Emerson that the nature of divine power was progressive
revelation via upward evolution.
With his embracing of this idea, Emerson entered the modern world. He
realized that the universe had not been created miraculously by divine
fiat, all at once, in the relatively recent past, and in essentially its
present form. Rather, it had been generated eons ago in a primal state,
and had then developed, through successive stages and according to natural
laws. Emerson had now made the leap, essential to all modern scientific
thinking, from an instantaneous to a developmental theory of creation.
He had banished, finally, the notion of Human Fall, replacing it with
the theory of progressive development through the adaptive transformation
of the species. Notably, he did so ten years before Darwin published his
Hegel not only exorcised evolution's specter of materialism, he reinforced
Chamber's idea that humanity, rather than Fallen and in decline, was rising
and in progress to a race of triumphant and faultless individuals. Thus
Emerson's Hegelian studies underwrote his mature metaphysical belief that
all souls were part of Nature's evolutionary advance, an advance
guiding each and every one to Enlightenment. As he summarized the value
of evolutionary science to metaphysics,
The gracious lesson taught by science to this country is that the history
of Nature from first to last is incessant advance from less to
more, from rude to finer organization, the globe of matter thus conspiriting
with the principle of undying hope in man.23
Hegel himself, of course, was little concerned with the individual. He
focussed primarily on the Cosmic Spirit's progressive revelation of Itself
through historical development. Emerson had now accepted this vital point,
but he also read Hegel (wrongly) as endorsing his own metaphysics of consciousness.
According to Emerson's understanding of the great German philosopher,
"Hegel's definition of liberty, was, the spirit's realization
of itself."24 Clearly, Emerson took Hegel to mean the individual's
own self-Realization, a spiritual fulfillment that was the very definition
of liberty. Combining these ideas by 1849, Emerson came to believe that
the Deep Force manifesting creation realized Itself through the highest
fruit of evolution the Enlightened individual. Achieving this goal
was humanity's "undying hope," and the process of evolution
"conspired" with human effort to achieve it the essence
of Emerson's mature metaphysics.
While Hegel had now helped him convert to evolution without becoming
a materialist, it was Emerson's own Process philosophy that allowed him
to accept evolution without becoming a fatalist or biological determinist.
He avoided this pitfall when he developed a Process theory of evolution
that synthesized Lamarck and Chambers. Remember the Lamarckian system
emphasized the freedom or creative capability of the life monad or "vesicle"
to satisfy its felt needs by manifesting an organ adapted to this purpose.
Chambers, by contrast, stressed fate or the environing circumstance as
the constitutive element in the vesicle's becoming. In other words, Lamarck
came down on the side of the vesicle's power/freedom to become what it
would, while Chambers underscored the role of circumstance/fate in the
Emerson's own position, depending as it did upon an evolutionary dialectic
between creature and circumstance, was a creative fusion of these two
competing evolutionary hypotheses. This evolutionary dialectic was vital
to Emerson's philosophy of experience because it assigned fate or circumstance
a significant and necessary part in the scheme of things. It allowed Emerson
to give fate (and Chamber's theory) its due place, while yet continuing
to insist upon the central importance of freedom, or the creative effort
of the subject (Lamarck's theory) in advancing the process of evolution.
In Emerson's synthesis, the dialectical interaction of environment and
personal power gave rise to the specific nature of an individual. Environment
shaped and directed (indeed called forth) the unfoldment of power, while
power grew (and evolution proceeded) through meeting the challenge posed
by circumstance. The result was the markedly optimistic implications of
fate within the evolutionary process as Emerson conceived it. Circumstance
placed limitations upon the individual creature, which then advanced by
overcoming present restraints and embracing new challenges. This creative
effort enabled the individual creature to evolve even further. "The
very discovery that there is Fate, and that we are thwarted," Emerson
asserted, "equally discloses Power. For what is it that is limited?
What but power?"25
A great deal has been made of Emerson's essay "Fate" as proof
of his Fall into materialism and fatalism. But a close reading of this
important text supports no such interpretation. It is true the essay makes
concessions to circumstance, but its main thrust was to affirm the central
role of the creative effort of the individual. The essay dilates on the
relationship between power or freedom and circumstance or fate considered
from an evolutionary point of view:
In science we have to consider two things: power and circumstance.
All we know of the egg, from each successive discovery, is, another
vesicle. . . . A vesicle in new circumstances, a vesicle lodged in darkness
became animal; in light, a plant. Lodged in the parent animal, it suffers
changes which end in unsheathing miraculous capability in the unaltered
vesicle, and it unlocks itself to fish, bird, or quadruped, head and
foot, eye and claw.26
At the heart of every creature was this driving impulse to mount and
meliorate. True, Emerson does concede that his earlier belief in the all-sufficiency
of positive power has been reduced by half. He now admits the soul faces
real constraints, because the natural forces of sex, race, climate, biological
endowment, and nature's laws bind and bound it. In terms of Chamber's
theory, these limitations "arrest" the development of the soul
the vesicle or life monad and determine its character.
Chamber's explanation, however, was but one side of the evolutionary
story. Emerson attended to the Lamarckian side in raising the question
of the vesicle's adaptive power: "The animal cell makes itself;
then what it wants. Every creature, wren or dragon, shall make its own
lair. As soon as there is life, there is self-direction and absorbing
and using of material. Life is freedom, life in the direct ratio of its
amount."27 That Lamarck was the inspiration for this passage Emerson
made clear in describing the methods of cellular "self-direction":
The vegetable eye makes leaf, pericarp, root, bark, or thorn, as the
need is; the first cell converts itself into stomack (sic), mouth, nose,
or nail, according to the want. . . . The adaptation is not capricious.
The ulterior aim, the purpose beyond itself, the correlation by which
planets subside and crystallize, then animate beasts and men,
will not stop but will work into finer particulars, and from finer to
Precisely because the vesicle had this power of self-direction "from
finer to finest," theories such as Chamber's which posited a strict
circumstantial and biological determinism seemed to Emerson at best incomplete.
While his pragmatic side admitted the obvious claims of fate and insisted
that "No picture of life can have any veracity that does not admit
the odious facts,"29 his transcendental persona as vehemently urged
that, "Fate has its Lord; limitation its limits, is different
seen from above and from below, from within and from without. For though
Fate is immense, so is Power, which is the other fact in the dual world,
immense. If Fate follows and limits Power, Power attends and antagonizes
Emerson held that a correct theory of evolution, and consequently a true
theory of human nature, must recognize both the soul's evolutionary limitations
as well as the spiritual power that enabled it to transcend them. Describing
the human as a "stupendous antagonism," Emerson limned his dual
He betrays his relation to what is below him, thickskulled,
small-brained, fishy, quadrumanous, quadruped ill-disguished, hardly
escaped into biped, and has paid for the new powers by loss of
some of the old ones. But the lightning which explodes and fashions
planets, maker of planets and suns, is in him. On one side elemental
order, sandstone and granite, rock-ledges, peat-bog, forest, sea shore;
and on the other part thought, the spirit which composes and decomposes
nature, here they are side by side, god and devil, mind and matter,
king and conspirator, belt and spasm, riding peacefully together in
the eye and brain of every man.31
The evolutionary process proceeded, then, via the dialectical interaction
of humanity's dual nature. Biological inheritance and environing circumstance
provided the challenging limits against which spirit measured itself.
The soul then strove to overcome these limitations, impelled by its intrinsic
impulse to evolve, an impulse in harmony with the Cosmic progression to
ever higher and more refined forms. Indeed, that was the very lesson of
modern science: incessant advance from rude to ever more refined forms
and states of consciousness.
Although he accepted evolution in a form that made him neither a materialist
nor a fatalist, Emerson was not yet home free. To reach his final philosophy,
and to harmonize it with his foundational beliefs, he still had to resolve
deep problems. He had to insure a place for the individual in Nature's
vast Process of evolutionary becoming, and he had to find some way of
explaining, in the context of evolution, his own balked aspiration for
self-Realization. He achieved these ends through his new principle of
transmigratory evolution. It explained the evolutionary Process in such
a way as to insist that all of life was a progressive development from
the trammels of fate into the freedom of Enlightenment.
Emerson's greatness lies in the fact that not only was he one of the
first to reject the old "Fallen" myth on scientific grounds,
but more importantly, he was the very first to create a new spirituality
to fit the scientific explanation. It began to cohere when evolution helped
Emerson see that the human race was in process to perfection. With this
idea as a basis, Emerson then made perhaps his greatest intellectual leap:
he united science and samsara, and conceived the law of transmigratory
Samsara is a Sanskrit word which literally means "the running
around." In Hindu metaphysics, samsara is the cosmic process
by means of which the soul is continually reborn until it finally achieves
moksa, defined as rending the veil of maya through the direct
experience that all is Brahman. In this process of death and rebirth,
the deeds committed by an individual in previous lifetimes and their consequences
(his or her karma) determine the conditions of the present
lifetime. Thus all incarnate beings live in the realm of samsara,
and are subject to the spiritual laws which rule and guide that realm.
Its purpose was to bring all souls to Enlightenment.
By the time of his conversion to the theory of evolution in 1849, Emerson
had already accepted key elements of the doctrine of samsara. In
the early 1920s, he had embraced the idea of moksa as the goal
of the spiritual life. By the late 1820s he had independently developed
the principle of Compensation, and subsequently discovered its coincidence
with India's theory of karma. During the 1840s, he accepted
the theory of maya as the explanation for the ignorance that precedes
Enlightenment. Now, to be in full accord with the picture of life presented
by samsara, he had only to adopt the principle of transmigration.
During the 1840s he finally did so, and in a way harmonized with his conversion
to evolutionary science.
While it was not until 1844 that Emerson accepted the principle of transmigration,
he had learned of it long before, and had consistently found it of interest.
Recall that Emerson encountered the idea of transmigration as early as
his Harvard days, when he read Charles Grant's "Poem on the Restoration
of Learning in the East." He made use of the concept in his senior
essay "The Present State of Ethical Philosophy," and references
to the principle then reappeared throughout the twenties and thirties.
For example, in a letter to his Aunt Mary in 1824, Emerson praised the
"serene and powerful understanding" of Benjamin Franklin, commenting
that he "seemed to be a transmigration of the Genius of Socrates."32
He also made several references to the fact that the ancient Greeks, and
especially Pythagoras, believed in transmigration. He counted among "Pythagorean
opinions" their faith that,
The soul is an emanation of the Divinity, a part of the Soul of the
world, a ray from the source of light. It comes from without into the
human body, as into a momentary abode. It goes out of it anew; it wanders
in ethereal regions, it returns to visit it; it passes into other habitations
for the soul is immortal.33
Emerson found the "Pythagorean doctrine of transmigration"34
a worthy idea, and noted that Pythagoras "remembered himself to have
existed before under the name of Euphorbus at the Siege of Troy."35
Thus Emerson appreciated that "the transmigration of souls"
was an "ancient" and philosophically recurring principle, kept
"so long in circulation" just because the facts of human experience
seemed to "suggest some approximation of theory."36
While Emerson was familiar with transmigration from early on, he initially
conceived of metempsychosis in terms of penitential devolution only. That
is, he thought human beings could be condemned to animal forms for past
transgressions, a concept he knew was shared by ancient Greece and India:
"Pythagoras said that the soul of man endured penance in the low
forms of ferocious, gluttonous, obscene beasts. The pig was the purgatory
of the glutton. A like faith had the Brahmin."37 In the early 1840s,
Emerson came to agree with the Greeks and Brahmins on this point, in part
because transmigration in its "penal" form fit comfortably with
his mind-set of the human Fall. It made sense, if humans had fallen from
a state of perfection, that they could fall even further, transmigrating
into lower animal forms as punishment for their human sins. This "penitential"
form of transmigration is explicit in Emerson's essay "History,"
The transmigration of souls is no fable. I would it were; but men and
women are only half human. Every animal of the barn-yard, the field
and the forest, of the earth and of the waters that are under the earth,
has contrived to get a footing and to leave the print of its features
and form in some one or other of these upright, heaven-facing speakers.
Ah! Brother, stop the ebb of thy soul, ebbing downward into the
forms into whose habits thou has now for many years slid.38
While the principle of "penitential" transmigration would continue
to inform Emerson's thought, during the early 1840s he began to understand
that metempsychosis had a "developmental" dimension as well.
As he carefully studied the neo-Platonists, The Ordinances of Menu,
and The Heetopades of Veeshnoo-Sarma, he learned that through reincarnation
the soul could not only regress to a lower form, but also make progress
to a higher one. By 1841, he found this more positive aspect of transmigration
both plausible and metaphysically attractive:
Perhaps the metamorphoses which we read in Latin or in Indian literature
are not quite so fabulous as they are accounted. . . .Every gardener
can change his flowers and leaves into fruit, and so perhaps is this
man who astonishes the senate or the parlor by the splendor of his conversation.
. . .capable in his next appearance in human nature of playing such
a game with his hands instead of his brain. . . .What would happen to
us who live on the surface, if this fellow in some new transmigration
should have acquired power to do what he now delights to say?39
The distinction of this passage is its avowal of the possibility of more
than one "appearance in human nature" that transmigration
involved more than mere penal devolution into lower animal forms. Souls
could have more than one incarnation as human beings, and their power
increased in subsequent transmigrations. However, while Emerson had now
grasped that transmigration could admit of a meliorative as well as a
penal formulation, his language has a tentative air "Perhaps"
metamorphoses is "not quite so fabulous" "What would"
happen to us if, in his next transmigration, the fellow in the passage
above could do what he now only says?
Further study of neo-Platonism and Indian philosophy in the early 1840s
finally brought about Emerson's conversion to metempsychosis, in both
its penal and progressive forms. In 1843, Emerson could say, "this
O Indur [i.e. Indra], is my one & twenty thousandth form, and already
I feel the old Life sprouting underneath into the twenty thousand &
first."40 Thus it was at the same time that Emerson was struggling
with the question of human origins that he rejected the Christian idea
of but one lifetime, and embraced the metaphysics of transmigration. During
this period of intellectual ferment, he confided, "It was then I
discovered the secret of the world that all things subsist, and do not
die, but only retire a little from sight and afterwards return again."41
He published this journal entry, from 1844, later in that same year,42
and expanded further on this idea in the essay "Nominalist and Realist,"
"Nothing is dead: men feign themselves dead, and endure mock funerals
and mournful obituaries, and there they stand looking out of the window,
sound and well, in some new and strange disguise."43 He now believed
that the "metempsychosis which is familiar in the old mythology of
the Greeks, collected in Ovid and in the Indian Transmigration,"
was an objective law that "really takes place in bodies,"44
that souls "revolve through many lives in the eternal whirl of generation."45
From this time forward, Emerson emphasized "the necessity of progression
or onwardness in each creation." Progression and onwardness were
the keynotes of life just because,
Metamorphosis is the law of the Universe. All forms are fluent and
as the bird alights on the bough & pauses for rest, then plunges
into the air again on its way, so the thoughts of God pause but for
a moment in any form, but pass into a new form, as if by touching the
earth again in burial, to acquire new energy. A wise man is not deceived
by the pause: he knows that it is momentary: he already foresees the
new departure, and departure after departure, in long series. Dull people
think they have traced the matter far enough if they have reached the
history of one of these temporary forms, which they describe as fixed
An important reason why Emerson was able to accept transmigration, in
both its penal and developmental forms, was its harmony with his principle
of internal Compensation. According to this principle, virtue augmented
the soul's participation in divine power, while evil diminished it. In
a crucial passage clearly influenced by the scriptures of India, Emerson
worked out the relationship between transmigration and internal Compensation.
Concerning "this Indian doctrine of transmigration," he mused,
"it seems easy of reception where the mind is not preoccupied. And
so readily suggested not only by the manners of insects, but by the manners
of men." He followed this endorsement of reincarnation with a simple
but explicit thought experiment to illustrate his transmigratory metaphysics.
First, Emerson put his thought experiment in an existential context by
describing what happened to the soul spiritually, how its spiritual energy
diminished, when it failed to live virtuously: "Here is a gentleman
who abused his privileges when in the flesh as a gentleman, and curtailed
therefore his amount of vital force. We cannot kill him, for souls will
not die. His punishment self-imposed, is, that he take such form as his
diminished vital force can maintain." In this passage, Emerson established
the relationship between internal Compensation and transmigration. Those
who abused their privileges as human beings and acted with evil intention,
decreased their amount of vital or spiritual force. If drastically reduced
in spiritual force, they had to reincarnate in a lower form of life commensurate
with their diminished inner power. They could make choices so bad that
they were condemned to a pre-human form.
Having set forth the relationship between internal Compensation and transmigration,
Emerson then illustrated it with a telling image. He likened "vital
force" to a "grain" of Being or Spirit. These golden "grains"
were the spiritual capital banked through living virtuously. Those who
did evil, by contrast, had these "grains" deducted from their
spiritual account. Emerson made this point with an explicitly "capitalist"
metaphor (emphasized with author's italics):
Now it takes to make a good dog, say, half a grain; a philosopher,
two; a poet, ten; and a good and wise man a thousand pounds. Now our
ill-behaved man on emerging from his rotten body and a candidate for
a new birth has not capital enough to maintain himself as man,
and with his diminished means nothing is left for it, but that
he should take a turn through nature this time as monkey. That costs
very little, and by careful governance in the monkey form
he shall have saved something and be ready at his return, to
begin the world again more decently, say, as dog. There he saves
again, and, at the end of that period, may drop his tail, and come
out Hottentot. Good Hottentot, he will rise, and one of these ages will
be a Massachusetts man.47
Significantly, he concluded this long passage with a quotation from The
Vishnu Purána: "Travelling the path of life through thousands
Emerson went on to say that only something like this transmigratory explanation
could explain the existence of the many "superfluous triflers who
whisk through nature." It must be the case that "They are passing
through their grub state, or are expiating their ill economy of
long ago."49 Emerson's 'Hottentot' passage is important not only
because it set forth the relationship between reincarnation and internal
Compensation, but also because it reflects both "penal" and
"progressive" metempsychosis. "Superfluous triflers"
were either passing through rude stages of progressive development, or
else paying for the sins of a previous lifetime.
Once Emerson saw that transmigration encompassed not only a penal but
also a progressive dimension, the idea of successive lifetimes fired his
imagination. The best evidence of this fascination is the number of synonyms
he used for this principle. In his journal for 1845 he wrote, seriatim,
the words "Metempsychosis/Transmigration/Metamorphosis/Proteus."50
Next to them he made a marginal note to "see p. 18," the page
which contains his "Hottentot" passage. Emerson then followed
his listing of transmigratory synonyms with a description of the Indian
practice of suttee, and the way in which lovers separated by death
were reunited in subsequent transmigrations. Referring to the transmigratory
implications of suttee he remarked, "To this practical doctrine of
Migration we have nothing corresponding."51 "Migration"
with a capital "M" was thus another of transmigration's synonyms,
a "practical doctrine" because it ground the hope for final
Enlightenment. This hope was the "best part" of "every
mind" and taught man that his present life "is of a ridiculous
brevity & meanness. . . .it is his first age & trial only of his
young wings. . . .vast revolutions, migrations, & gyres on gyres in
the celestial societies invite him."52
In 1847 Emerson began using the terms "transit" and "transition"
synonymously with transmigration. "Everything teaches transition,
transference, metamorphosis," Emerson said, "therein is human
power." He continued that "human destiny" was "removal,"
and then analogized surfing and reincarnation: "We dive and reappear
in new places. . . . The savages in the islands delight in playing with
the surf and coming in on top of a wave, then swimming out and repeating
the delicious maneouvre for hours. Well, human life is made up of such
transits as this. The surf is a true symbol of our human life which is
a perpetual series of transits. I see the law of the world to be transition."53
Shortly after his "surfer" entry, Emerson identified "Transition"
as the "organic destiny of the mind," and insisted that "the
more transit, the more continuity; or, we are immortal by force of transits."
He then established the connection between transmigration and Enlightenment:
"We ask a selfish immortality, Nature replies by steeping
us in the sea which girds the seven worlds, & makes us free of them
all. . . .I see the law of the world to be transition."54
In the midst of his speculations on "transit," Emerson reminded
himself to "See what I have written of Rotation and of not getting
out of nature until you are clean."55 The pages he reminded himself
to consult reveal that "Rotation" was yet another synonym for
transmigration. He cross-indexed under "Rotation" the words,
"Life is the sleep of the soul; as soon as a soul is tired, it looks
out for a body as a bed; enters into a body in the season of dentition,
& sleeps seventy years."56 Or as he put the point a bit differently
in 1853, "In this kingdom of illusion life is a dream. . . .We change
only from bed to bed."57 Also indexed under "Rotation"
was a significant journal passage58 the germ of which Emerson used in
Representative Men. Lamenting human ignorance, he yet averred that
nature would resolve this problem "in due time," and that "Rotation
is her remedy." "Rotation is the law of nature," Emerson
believed, "We touch and go, and sip the foam of many lives."59
Now convinced that transmigration was true, that souls sip the foam of
many lives in their ascent to higher states of consciousness, Emerson
then combined the teachings of samsara with the facts of evolutionary
science. In doing so, he made his most ingenious philosophical leap, and
brought forth one of the most important truths of his New World Metaphysics.
Evolution, of course, teaches that higher species have evolved from lower
ones. Beginning with this principle, Emerson applied the concept of the
evolution of the species to the individual. That is, he fused evolution
which teaches biological melioration of the species with
mysticism which teaches the spiritual melioration of the individual.
In so doing he formulated a new principle of spiritual Process: the
law of transmigratory evolution.
According to this law, the individual soul evolved upwards through all
of the lower biological species, and continued to evolve spiritually as
a human being. Evolution proceeded as discrete and personally identifiable
vesicles (i.e. souls) mounted through Nature's successively higher
biological spires of form. Emerson was persuaded that "nature has
a higher end, in the production of new individuals, than security, namely
ascension, or the passage of the soul into higher forms."60
Nature's new epigraph, added in 1849, expressed just this principle:
A subtle chain of countless rings
The next unto the farthest brings;
The eye reads omens where it goes,
And speaks all languages the rose;
And, striving to be man, the worm
Mounts through all the spires of form.61
"How dost thou, Brother!," Emerson said to the lowly worm,
"Please God, you shall yet be a philosopher." If the brother
worm was "striving to be man," and was one day to be a philosopher,
it could do so only by reincarnating through ever-higher forms. Nature's
new epigraph captured this very idea. It affirmed both biological evolution
(the worm as a species was a necessary step towards humanity) and
transmigratory evolution (the soul that animated the worm would
one day animate a human). In his essay "Nature" Emerson
put this point simply, "The animal is the novice and probationer
of a more advanced order."62 The brother worm was a novice soul,
living through its probationary period of spiritual growth, mounting through
all the spires of biological form until it reached the more advanced human
stage. Thus evolution proceeded as individual souls ascended through transmigration.
What was true of animals was equally true of plants, even more rudimentary
souls that had higher to climb. "Plants are the young of the world,"
Emerson supposed, "but they grope ever upward towards consciousness;
the trees are imperfect men, yet no doubt when they come to consciousness
they too will curse and swear."63 He expressed this same idea in
his poem "Baccus,"
And the poor grass shall plot and plan
What it will do when it is man.64
Thus transmigratory evolution explained the enduring relationship between
animals and humans. As Emerson unfolded this principle, "in nature
are men made up of monads, each of which has held governance of fish or
fowl or worm or fly, & is now promoted to be a particle of man."65
He put this same concept a bit differently in his essay "Powers and
Laws of Thought," "how many faces in the street still remind
us of visages in the forest, the escape from the quadruped type
not yet perfectly accomplished."66
The key to Emerson's new principle of transmigratory evolution, then,
was that souls had arisen through all of the more primary orders of Nature
by means of the process of metempsychosis. People incorporated a multitude
of forms, animate and inanimate, because they had been them in their ascension
to human status through the process of reincarnation. "Like can only
be known by like," Emerson affirmed. "The reason why he [man]
knows about them is that he is of them; he has just come out of nature,
or from being a part of that thing. Animated chlorine knows of chlorine,
and incarnate zinc, of zinc."67 Or, as Emerson summed up the basic
law of transmigratory evolution: "Man, made of the dust of the world,
does not forget his origin; and all that is yet inanimate will one day
speak and reason."68 No less eloquent was Emerson's analogous statement,
"The gases gather to the solid firmament: the chemic lump arrives
at the plant, and grows; arrives at the quadruped, and walks; arrives
at the man, and thinks."69 This was the law of transmigratory evolution:
the soul mounted through all of Nature's spires of form chemical,
vegetable, animal, humanly intelligent and finally spiritual. "All
things continually ascend,"70 Emerson declared. The law of the universe
is "transmigration & ascent,"71 the law of transmigratory
While the theory of evolution was obviously essential to this breakthrough,
samsara was equally important. It enabled him to preserve the promise
of individual human perfection through the soul's development in the evolutionary
process. Thus Emerson's new principle reconciled the course of evolution
and human spiritual hopes. The result was his final philosophy: the creation
of a new and faultless race of Enlightened human beings was the future
of the planet, and would fulfill the teleology of terrestrial existence
the very goal of souls' collective transmigratory evolutions. That
is Emerson's New World "scientific" myth, a myth born of the
union of science and samsara, as the principles of evolution and
reincarnation matured simultaneously and complementarily in his thinking.
Emerson's transformed sense of time was the key to his new metaphysical
insight. Once he understood that evolution had been proceeding for vast
millions of years, he was able embrace the idea of the soul developing
through lower forms of life because there was now ample time for this
spiritual Process to unfold. For this reason, the framework of an ancient
and progressive universe was critical to Emerson's acceptance of transmigratory
evolution. But if evolution helped him accept transmigration in a novel
and deeper way, transmigration helped him accept evolution. It gave him
a new way of thinking about human origins. Indian philosophy portrays
the soul as developing spiritually through successive lifetimes. When
Emerson absorbed this idea, it helped him decide the related question
of human origins. And here we should remember that Emerson accepted transmigration
in 1844, five years before the Hegelians converted him to the theory of
Then began his period of irresolution on the question of human origins.
During this searching decade, the scriptures of India helped him see that
humans were not the degraded remains of a more perfect race. Rather, they
were an improvement upon lower and more rudimentary forms of life. Indian
philosophy helped Emerson accept evolution because it taught him that
the law of Nature was from less to more, not the other way round,
as the myth of the Fall had long led him to believe. The complementarity
between India's principle of lower to higher and his over-all theory of
spiritual Process made apparent to Emerson that the myth of the Fall was
fundamentally incompatible with the cosmic optimism of his New World Metaphysics.
For this reason, Indian philosophy played an important part in his acceptance
Finally, in the crucial year 1849, Emerson united evolution and transmigration,
generating the principle of evolutionary metempsychosis that brought his
thought to fulfillment. He announced this law in a moving appeal to all
of those in ignorance. Each soul was in truth Hari, the supreme power
through which Brahman manifested creation. Each soul was ascending through
nature's spires of form until it reached Enlightenment:
O endless ends, o living child! how can you fail! To you I open the
ill kept secret that you are Hari, divine & invincible, cousin
to the four elements & the four hundred gods. You were concealed
in an egg for thirty millenniums, then born on the side of a brook,
confided to a shepherd who brought you up in a shanty, but your enemies
have no longer power. It is time you should show yourself, fate is in
your eye. You will yet be a horse, a lizard, a dragonfly, & a swamp
full of alligators, but time & space are cheap to you, Hari; you
can afford to be multiplied & divided, to bite & to be bitten,
to be a bankrupt tradesman, or an acre of Sand; divided you will reunite,
& you thrive by dying."72
Transmigration was paramount in Emerson's mature thought because it
provided all souls with the chance to experience all possibilities in
life in their ascent from and through the most rudimentary forms to full
Enlightenment. For this reason, "All that respects the individual
is temporary and prospective, like the individual himself, who is ascending
out of his limits into a catholic existence."73 Given this principle,
Emerson observed, "To say, 'The majority are wicked,' means no malice,
nor bad heart in the observer, but simply, that the majority are young,
are boys, are animals. . . .they have not yet come to themselves."74
Thus at any given time, different souls had reached different stages in
the cosmic process of ongoing evolution. A few were highly evolved, while
"The mass are animal, in pupilage, & near chimpanzee."75
Despite their proximity to lower forms of life, however, even the most
rudimentary souls were evolving to higher states of consciousness. "The
truth seems to be," Emerson conjectured, "there are no common
people, no populace, but only juniors & seniors; the mob is made up
of kings that shall be; the lords have all in their time taken place in
the mob."76 He distilled the essential nature of existence in a telling
apothegm, "All is system and gradation."77
In his mature metaphysics, the differences between people were not arbitrary,
but existed for lawful reasons. Souls of the greatest accomplishment were
the most ancient. "The eyes indicate the antiquity of the soul,"
Emerson claimed, "or, through how many forms it has already ascended."78
Here Emerson stated one of the most important concepts in his metaphysics
of conscious evolution: that of the ancient soul. As he expressed this
Do not tell the age of souls
By bended backs or whitening polls
Some of those you see are young
New released from Chaos strong
Unskilled to live and brutal still
With the vegetable will.79
The age of the soul could not be determined by the individual's chronological
age in this lifetime. Some who were physically aged in this incarnation
might in fact be quite young spiritually, and just beginning their long
series of lives as human beings.
More ancient souls, by contrast, had incarnated as humans many times
and had become ever less vegetative and brutal, ever more skillful at
the art of living. For this reason, a chief distinction between human
beings was the antiquity of their souls, determined by the number of transmigrations
through which the soul had passed "or through how many forms it has
already ascended." In Emerson's mature philosophy of spiritual Process,
the more lifetimes lived, the more that was learned and the deeper the
soul became spiritually. The soul ascended through these "many lives,"
rising to ever higher states of consciousness. Emerson effectively made
this point when he said of Plato, "it is impossible that an air of
such calmness & long maturity can belong to the hasty, crude, experimental
blotting of one lifetime."80
While the textual evidence makes plain that Emerson accepted transmigratory
evolution, a deeper appreciation for his mature philosophy is conveyed
by understanding the metaphysical, existential, and scientific reasons
that lay behind his new myth. Of the metaphysical reasons, two have already
been presented: transmigratory evolution fit perfectly with Emerson's
early theories of internal Compensation and spiritual Process. Another
reason, perhaps the most significant, centered on the all-importance Emerson
ascribed to the individual soul. This sharply demarcates Emerson and Hegel.
In the Hegelian view, individuals were nothing more than stepping stones
in the Spirit's progressive revelation. Hegel exalted the state, and focused
on the historical emergence of the political and cultural forms that determined
the life of the individual. This Hegelian idea that while individuals
subserved the cosmic process of forward advance they were unimportant
in themselves Emerson rejected absolutely. As he said of the Stoics,
but with equal applicability to Hegel, "'Tis not in man to thank
the philosopher that merges his selfish in the social nature. No man loves
it; the meanest loses more than he gains by parting with his identity
to make an integral atom of the Whole."81
While Emerson accepted Hegel's idea that history (including evolutionary
history) was the progressive unfoldment of Spirit, he maintained a strong
focus on the importance of the individual through the law of transmigratory
evolution. He insisted that souls as individuals had evolved upwards
through all of the lower forms of life. The individual was not merely
a stepping stone in some vast cosmic process; the individual was at the
heart of that outworking process, and retained personal identity throughout
this process because the individual continually returned as part
of the march of history through successive reincarnating forms. However,
this fundamental truth carried an important qualifier. The state of the
soul depended not only on the number of lives lived, but also on the quality
of those various lifetimes.
The very idea of "quality of life" introduces another metaphysical
reason Emerson found the theory of transmigratory evolution compelling:
it blended seamlessly with his early theory of external Compensation,
the equivalent of karma. In Hinduism and Buddhism, karma
and reincarnation are inextricably bound together. For both faiths, karma
is action that brings upon the doer inevitable results, either in the
present lifetime or in a subsequent reincarnation. Each lifetime created
karma which then influence this or future lifetimes. When Emerson
met with India's discussion of karma in terms of transmigration,
he began to see that transmigration was the meta-theory necessary to a
sensible explanation of his earliest moral theory.
According to external Compensation, "As we do, so is it done to
us." While Emerson never abandoned this faith, it became evident
as he matured that people often did not have done to them what they themselves
had done. Those who lived exemplary lives could be visited with disasters,
while the evil might prosper. It became ever more obvious to him, the
longer he lived, that individuals did not always reap their just desserts
in the present lifetime. In order to resolve this problem, in order for
external Compensation to make sense, Emerson came to see that reincarnation
was fact. In his essay "Fate," he concluded that the "Hindoos"
are right, that "'Fate is nothing but deeds committed in a former
existence.'" He continued, "To say it less sublimely,
in the history of the individual is always an account of his condition,
and he knows himself to be a party to his present estate."82 Or as
he quoted the "sublime ethics" of The Vishnu Purána,
"He who inflicts pain upon others in act, thought, or speech, sows
the seed of future birth, & the fruit that awaits him after future
birth is pain."83
Since bad people often did not immediately incur sufferings commensurate
with their evil deeds, Emerson had to assume that they would in subsequent
lifetimes. In what other way could the universe hold them accountable
for their actions? And personal accountability is the key to the balancing
allotment of fitting destinies in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Emerson's New
World Metaphysics. "If any one feeling is positive," Emerson
pronounced, "it is personal accountability."84 Personal accountability
was essential to Emerson, because his was the ultimate in a theology of
salvation by works. In his metaphysics, spiritual progress depended upon
self-redemption through virtue, on the individual's efforts to be in harmony
with the moral fabric of the universe. But, as he came more and more to
realize as he matured, to accept personal accountability was to accept
transmigration, since it is obvious that individuals did not always suffer
punishments or garner good fortune appropriate to their deeds in this
lifetime. Through his conversion to transmigratory evolution, Emerson
could rest assured that all souls would eventually receive a fitting destiny,
either now or in a future lifetime, since karma and reincarnation
hold them personally accountable for their actions.
The emphasis on personal accountability stemmed from the deep structure
of his early metaphysics. It began with Emerson's rejection of the Christian
idea of damnation he simply could not believe that divine power
would torture a soul eternally. However, if a soul failed to live virtuously,
Emerson believed that divine power would hold it personally responsible
for this failure, and would mete out an appropriate punishment of limited
duration. This punishment took the form of Compensatory or karmic
retribution and expiation, laws central to personal accountability. In
an automatic way, they took into consideration the moral and spiritual
differences among people. According to Emerson's theory of transmigratory
evolution, if souls behaved improperly, they were not punished with eternal
Hell. Instead, they received an appropriate punishment in the form of
karmic retribution. It expiated their misdeeds, and, in so doing,
better fit them for further progress in Nature's cosmic process.
A complementary reason for the emphasis on personal accountability also
arose from the deep structure of New World Metaphysics. It followed from
Emerson's rejection of damnation. The goal of life in his Process philosophy
was not to get saved from the fires of Hell and go to Heaven: it was to
awake and be Enlightened. Once Emerson rejected the idea of Heaven in
favor of Enlightenment, he was forced, as he matured, to conclude that
souls must live more than one lifetime to reach the goal. It became ever
more obvious to him that most people could not fulfill this purpose in
one brief existence. Many were evil, while the vast majority pursued the
road of ignorance, sloth, and selfishness. A minority were seriously committed
to spiritual growth, and a tiny handful were fully Enlightened. Given
this reality, Emerson concluded, "The men we see are above or below
the population, & life, if there were only one life, would not be
a blessing. In the whole they must be fit, or they would not exist, &
in their next births we shall like them better."85
In his transmigratory Process of spiritual evolution, each individual
required the amplitude of time afforded by reincarnation in order fully
to experience all of life's soul-nurturing possibilities and to unfold
the soul's full spiritual potential. Emerson outlined this principle clearly:
"We are driven by instinct to hive innumberable experiences which
are of no visible value, and we may revolve through many lives before
we shall assimilate or exhaust them."86
If transmigratory evolution made sense of external Compensation, it also
fit comfortably with Emerson's early theme of Self-Reliance. According
to his mature belief, in each transmigratory incarnation the soul embodied
some aspect or nexus of traits characteristic of the general human species,
while also working through the specific nature of its individual karmic
entanglements. In Emerson's vision of this progress, "It seems as
if the Deity dressed each soul which he sends into nature in certain virtues
and powers not communicable to other men, and sending it to perform one
more turn through the circle of beings, wrote, 'Not transferable' and
'Good for this trip only,' on these garments of the soul."87 Since
at every point in its journey each soul was possessed of certain virtues
and powers that were "Good for this trip only," each soul had
to Self-Reliantly seek the path of action which would allow it to exercise
and assimilate the value of those unique virtues and powers.
Although each soul pursued its own unique path, Emerson believed that
all souls would eventually mount through Nature's gradations and
reach Enlightenment. That is, all souls would have a chance to experience
all possibilities of life in their ascent from and through the most rudimentary
forms to the mystic's highest insight. According to the principle of transmigratory
evolution, while all would eventually achieve this awakening, each soul
had to ride the wheel of spiritual Process full circle in order to unfold
its individual spiritual potential, experiencing all possibilities and
fulfilling all of its desires on the way, through many lifetimes. As Emerson
affirmed, the soul's many desires "point to a duration ample enough
for the entire satisfaction of them all."88 By living through and
satisfying their many desires, all souls deepened and grew, subject to
what Emerson described as the "law of nature whereby everything climbs
to higher platforms." It was just because of this law that Emerson
could say of crude or evil people, "in their next births we shall
like them better."89
Breaking with Hegel on the central importance of each unique individual,
Emerson's theory of transmigratory evolution enabled him to maintain an
unyielding commitment to the promise of universal Enlightenment for all
incarnate souls. That commitment, in turn, provided him with the most
profound reason to trust the benevolence of the Deep Force manifesting
the universe. In Emerson's mature metaphysics, transmigratory evolution
was the spiritual Process through which this promise was fulfilled. According
to this principle, souls were not cruelly and forever divided into the
saved and the damned. All souls were sustained in the transmigratory Process
until they reached their own inner awakening. This truth grounded Emerson's
mature faith in the benevolence of the universe: transmigratory evolution
guaranteed both earthly justice and ultimate spiritual freedom for all.
If Emerson had deep metaphysical reason to accept transmigratory evolution,
he had existential ones as well. By 1841, Emerson's highest aspirations
remained unfulfilled, and he began moving closer to a gradualist theory
of spiritual development. Considered in the context of his thought in
1836, this shift might have occasioned despair. Then he was naïve
enough to believe that simply adopting the right spiritual attitudes would
soon translate into Enlightenment. And, for the Emerson of 1836, humanity's
fallen state was, curious to say, the grounds of his early spiritual hope.
For, if humans were but fallen from a state of perfection they once possessed,
then repossession of that perfection was that much more easily accomplished.
It was simply a return to what was the normal human condition. In 1836,
Emerson was optimistic enough to believe that the right knowledge of one's
intrinsic divinity, as well as a perfect receptivity to the influx of
Spirit, would be sufficient to transmute the soul into its state of former
Time eventually tempered this more immediate view of personal perfection,
forcing Emerson to concede that Awakening took longer than he had originally
supposed. He had to admit that it was not achievable in a single bound,
but was rather a much more gradual and extended process. Transmigratory
evolution rescued him from the existential and spiritual despair potential
in this realization, because at precisely the time that science and experience
caused him to view spiritual growth as more gradual, the neo-Platonists
and the philosophers of India inspired him to expand existence beyond
one lifetime. This background illuminates a passage in a letter from Emerson
to Margaret Fuller in 1841: "But fie on this Half this Untried, this
take-it-or-leave-it, this flash-of-lightning-life. In my next migration,
O Indra! I bespeak an ampler circle."90 His dissatisfaction with
his present "flash-of-lightning-life" would be resolved in the
ampler circle of his next migration.
It was this expansion that allowed Emerson to accept evolution and yet
retain a personal Transcendentalism. His law of transmigratory evolution
enabled him to pay all due respect to the universal evolutionary process
concerned only with the melioration of the species, and yet retain an
equally strong commitment to personal identity, personal moral accountability,
and personal transcendence. The evolutionary process need not be concerned
about one individual more or less that was the provenance of transmigration.
By this ingenious move, Emerson turned spiritual disappointment into hope,
and believed that at some time and in some future form he would know the
ultimate victory. But, of necessity, this new explanation did make Emerson
more of a gradualist with respect to Enlightenment. With his conversion
to transmigratory evolution, the human problem was no longer, as he believed
in 1836, to simply become again what humanity had been before the Fall.
It was now to evolve upwards and realize a historically rare state of
In addition to the existential pressures that made transmigration attractive,
Emerson's commitment to science also played a vital part. Transmigratory
evolution was important to Emerson because it allowed him to do away with
the anthropomorphic God of Abraham, all too prone to suspend the laws
of Nature and intervene in earthly affairs. Breaking with this
"Kingship" model, Emerson conceived of divine power, and its
operations in terrestrial life, in terms compatible with modern science.
"The religion which is to guide and fulfill the present and coming
ages, whatever else it be," Emerson divined, "must be intellectual.
The scientific mind must have a faith which is science."91 Faith
in the cosmic laws of evolution, karma, and reincarnation became
essential to the mature Emerson's philosophy because they precluded divine
whim, chance, and anarchy from the universe. They insured its orderly
and lawful progression because they functioned automatically and in a
predictable manner, in the same way as the laws of Nature, thereby
harmonizing his metaphysics with modern science. These laws could neither
be suspended nor canceled by divine fiat, as was so often the case with
the God of Abraham. The human purpose was to grow in harmony with higher
laws by living the life of the Spirit. And, far from religion and science
being at odds, spiritual truths could be learned by studying the discoveries
of science. To study Nature scientifically was to unveil spiritual laws,
and to observe them was to speed the soul's progress to Enlightenment.
The laws of evolution, reincarnation and karma governed this vast
cosmic Process, underwriting Emerson's mature faith that "There is
no chance and no anarchy in the universe. All is system and gradation."92
Emerson named these powerful superintending laws the laws of Beautiful
Let us build altars to the Beautiful Necessity, which secures that
all is made of one piece; that plaintiff and defendant, friend and enemy,
animal and planet, food and eater are of one kind. Let us build to the
Beautiful Necessity, which makes man brave in believing that he cannot
shun a danger that is appointed, nor incur one that is not; to the Necessity
which rudely or softly educates him to the perception that there are
no contingencies; that Law rules throughout existence; a Law which is
not intelligent but intelligence; not personal nor impersonal
it disdains words and passes understanding; it dissolves persons;
it vivifies nature; yet solicits the pure in heart to draw on all its
By means of the laws of evolution, transmigration, and karma,
each soul would one day, through purity of heart, manifest the omnipotence
of the Over-Soul's causal power a good definition of Tantric Enlightenment,
and an apt summary of Emerson's mature metaphysics.
Emerson gave beautiful expression to his new principle of transmigratory
evolution when he said that, in each incarnation, "the mind of the
world" takes up the soul and gives it glimpses of the "magnificent
Sun." The metaphors of light and sunshine time-honored images
for Awakening recur again and again in Emerson. He continued his
reflections on the "magnificent Sun" in a way that gave individual
Enlightenment a cosmic significance:
In this way it [i.e., the Over-Soul] educates the youth of the Universe;
in this way, warms, suns refines every particle; then it drops the little
channel or canal, through which the Life rolled beatific, like
a fossil to the ground, thus touched & educated by a moment
of sunshine, to be the fairer material for future channels & canals,
though which the old Glory shall dart again, in new directions, until
the Universe shall have been shot through & through, tilled
Based on his faith in transmigratory evolution, it was Emerson's mature
belief that all souls would become Realized, and the universe thereby
tilled with light. Indeed, the essence of Emerson's mature faith was his
belief that all souls were advancing from the limiting circumstances of
fate to the perfect freedom of Enlightenment. At some point in the future,
when a sufficiency of such exalted souls had finally evolved, Heaven would
reign on earth the terrestrial realm tilled with the divine light
In accordance with the conventions of Emersonian scholarship, the following
abbreviations are used to identify often cited sources:
J The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson
and Waldo Emerson Forbes. 10 vols. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin,
JMN The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson,
ed. William H. Gilman, Alfred R. Ferguson, George P. Clark, Merrell
R. Davis, Merton M. Sealts, Harrison Hayford, Ralph H. Orth, J.E. Parsons,
A.W. Plumstead, Linda Allardt, and Susan Sutton Smith, et al. 16 vols.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960 1982.
L The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph L. Rusk. 6 vols.
New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1939.
LC The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E.
Whicher, Robert E. Spiller, and Wallace E. Williams. 3 vols. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1959, 1964, 1972.
W The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Concord Edition.
12 vols. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1903.
1 See LC I pp. 1-2.
2 Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology, 2 vols., (London, 1830-1832)
3 JMN V 232.
4 LC I 29.
5 LC I 30.
6 LC I 31.
7 JMN V 231.
8 JMN V 220 LC II 23.
9 JMN IX 241-242.
10 W III 178.
11 W III 179-180.
12 JMN IX 77.
13 Robert Chambers, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation,
(New York: 1845).
14 JMN IX 211-212.
15 JMN IX 233.
16 JMN X 353.
17 Op. cit., Vestiges of Creation, p. 142.
18 JMN X 100.
19 See JMN XI 24 and JMN XI 179.
20 JMN XI 187.
21 JMN XI 263.
22 John Bernard Stallo, General Principles of the Philosophy of Nature,
(Boston: Wm. Crosby and H.P. Nichols, 1848), pp. 44-45.
23 W XI 525.
24 JMN XVI 8.
25 W VI 350.
26 W VI 14.
27 W VI 38.
28 W VI 39.
29 W VI 19.
30 W VI 22.
31 W VI 22-23.
32 J I 375-376.
33 JMN III 367.
34 JMN IV 288.
35 JMN IV 12.
36 LC III 154.
37 LC I 79.
38 W II 32.
39 LC III 354.
40 JMN VIII 432-433.
41 JMN IX 73.
42 W III 242-243.
43 W III 244.
44 W IV 124.
45 JMN IX 116.
46 JMN IX 301.
47 JMN IX 263-264.
48 JMN IX 264.
50 JMN IX 317.
51 JMN IX 311.
52 JMN IX 341.
53 Redacted from JMN X 76 & 146 & 161.
54 JMN X 160-161.
55 JMN X 76.
56 JMN IX 371
57 JMN XIII 251.
58 JMN IX 400
59 W IV 19.
60 W III 24.
61 W I 1.
62 W III 181.
63 W III 181-182.
64 W IX 126.
65 JMN XI 429.
66 W XII 22-23.
67 W IV 11.
68 W IV 11-12.
69 W IV 11.
71 JMN XI 128.
72 JMN XI 181-182.
73 W IV 34.
74 JMN XIII 377.
75 JMN XIII 440.
76 JMN IX 246.
77 W VI 325.
78 JMN VIII 438.
79 JMN IX 169.
80 JMN XI 163.
81 J II 101.
82 W VI 13.
83 JMN IX 307.
84 J II 101.
85 JMN X 41.
86 W VIII 336.
87 W IV 28.
88 L I 198.
89 JMN X 41.
90 L II 399
91 W VI 240.
92 W VI 325.
93 W VI 49.
94 JMN XIII 66-67.