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 inconceivable.”3
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 them.
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 epochal work.
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.”24Clearly, 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 vesicle’s formation.
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 finest.28
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 Fate.”30
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 nature:
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 evolution.
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 & final.46
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 of births.”48
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 evolution.
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 evolution.
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 of evolution.
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 concept poetically,
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 perfection.
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 spiritual knowledge.
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 Necessity:
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 omnipotence.93
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 with light.94
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 of Awakening.
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, 1909-1914.
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.