[Page 3] IT is the privilege of the student to dig in ground prepared by others for materials wherewith to furnish his mental storehouse. To the student of the esoteric philosophy the writings of R. W. Emerson afford a rich field for such digging, and one which might yield an abundant harvest if sufficiently tilled.
I think it safe to say that there are many persons who would read Emerson with interest, and even fascination, who yet would not be drawn to Theosophy by a superficial reading of its expositions, little thinking that Theosophy and Emerson had anything in common. It will be my endeavour this evening to show that at least fundamentally they are in agreement.
But before we proceed to the consideration of Emerson's philosophy, it will perhaps be of interest to take a brief survey of the circumstances among which he was born and lived. The Church was his birthright, for he was descended through a long line of scholars and preachers. We trace his clerical ancestry back to the year 1582, in which year was born Emerson's grandfather of the seventh remove, by name Peter Bulkeley, afterwards rector of the Parish Church of Odell in Bedfordshire. This remote ancestor of Emerson's, in course of time, found himself unable conscientiously to conform to the ceremonies of the English Church, and during Archbishop Laud's attempt to suppress Puritanism in England, was "silenced for his non-conformity", and obliged to leave both Church and country. He thereupon emigrated to America, and settled at Cambridge, New England, in 1635; afterwards migrating further inland, to what was at that time the frontier, he founded a colony, being followed by settlers, built a church, and named the town Concord. Concord was destined 200 years later to be the centre of a movement led by R. W. Emerson, which had many points in common with the Theosophical movement of the present day. Those who took part in this movement were known by the name of "Transcendentalists", a somewhat vague term, but, according to Emerson, synonymous with "Idealist". The latter he defines as one who “takes his departure from his consciousness and reckons the world an appearance". "The idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendental from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant. Intuitions of the mind itself — apart from [Page 4] experience — he denominated Transcendental forms". How the name first came to be applied to the American movement is not known. These Transcendentalists were commonly supposed to hold new views, but we have it from no less an authority than their leader that the so-called new views were the very oldest of views presented in a nineteenth century garb to suit the life and time.
We will pass over Emerson's intermediate ancestors to his father, the Rev. Wm. Emerson, who was a minister of the leading church in Boston; but died when his son Ralph Waldo was but eight years of age, in 1811. The son was left to the care of his mother, who, as all records show, under most difficult circumstances, discharged her duties to her family in an exemplary manner.
Emerson was educated, first at the Latin School, Boston, and afterwards at a school in Concord, on the removal of the family thither. He entered Harvard University at the age of fourteen, in the year 1817, and graduated there four years later. He then started to work with a view to assisting the family, which, since the death of his father, had lived in a state bordering on poverty. He took a position as teacher in a High School at Boston, but afterwards established a school of his own at Cambridge, in order to study divinity at Cambridge University, Mass., with a view to assuming the hereditary gown.
Having studied for three years at Cambridge, Emerson was, in 1826, commissioned to preach by the Middlesex Association of Ministers; but three years later he accepted the ministry of the second church in Boston, and settled in that town with his wife, having married in the same year Ellen Louisa Tucker. But the brightness of his prospects was soon to be clouded, for in February, 1831, the wife of his youth died; and may it be suggested that the expansion of Emerson's religious views was accelerated by contemplation following this trial, for in the following year he decided that he could no longer remain in the Church. The actual reason given to the congregation for his resignation of the ministry, was, that he could no longer administer the Sacrament; but doubtless there were other reasons, for his son, Edward W. Emerson, in his book called "Emerson in Concord ", records that "the Church at that time seemed to his father to be the tomb of religion; he left it to come out into the living day".
We might say that Church dogma had now become to Emerson impossible; and so we find that two hundred years after his ancestor, the Rev. Peter Bulkeley, had passed from English Church formula to Puritanism and the advocating of liberty of conscience in matters of religion, the descendant was to pass from Unitarianism to a more generous Pantheism.
With his exit from the Church we will leave Emerson's personal career, which afterwards was mainly devoted to the lecture platform, his [Page 5] free pulpit as he called it, and pass on to the consideration of his philosophy, and its bearing upon and likeness to Theosophy, as expounded in the writings of H. P. Blavatsky and others.
In one of his earlier writings Emerson reminds his readers that he is only an experimenter, and asks them not to set the least value on what he does do, or the least discredit on what he does not do, as if he pretended to settle anything as true or false. He says: "I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back". And his experiments brought him to treat of the occult forces in Nature, for he considered that true science was to use objects "according to the life, and not according to the form". "Nothing", he says, "is secure but life, transition, the energising spirit". Such was his attitude to Nature.
Emerson's philosophy is far more in accord with Eastern than with Western lines of thought, and we gather that he attached great and special value to Oriental literature. There is an interesting passage bearing upon the subject of Eastern literature in Emerson's essay on "Plato, or the Philosopher", in which he says: "In all nations there are minds which incline to dwell in the conception of the fundamental Unity. This tendency finds its highest expression in the religious writings of the East, and chiefly in the Indian Scriptures, in the 'Vedas', the 'Bhagavat Gita', and the 'Vishnu Purana'". These works, he considers, rise to pure and sublime strains in celebrating this conception. But on the other hand, we are told that, "urged by an opposite necessity the mind returns from One, to that which is not one but other or many; from cause to effect; and affirms the necessary existence of variety; the self-existence of both, as each is involved in the other".
Emerson's appreciation of Eastern literature is of interest to the student in the light of the second object of the Theosophical Society, which is: "To promote the study of Aryan and other Eastern literatures, religions, and sciences, and demonstrate the importance of that study".
Emerson follows the essentially Eastern conception of the illusionary nature of the world of appearances, and says that "we stand before the secret of the world, there where Being passes into appearance and Unity into Variety". This same idea is set forth in the "Secret Doctrine", where it is couched in the following terms: — "The One Being is the noumenon of all the noumena which we know must underlie phenomena and give them whatever shadow of reality they possess, but which we have not the senses or the intellect to cognize at present". [“The Secret Doctrine,” by H.P. Blavatsky] Emerson calls it "the Secret of the World"; it is the secret of the Sphinx's riddle; Isis to be unveiled.
We naturally ask the question, how is this mystery to he solved? [Page 6] Emerson says, "there are all degrees of proficiency in knowledge of the world". In his essay entitled "Prudence"; he indicates three: — "One class live to the utility of the symbol; esteeming health and wealth a final good. Another class live above this mark to the beauty of the symbol; as the poet and artist, and the naturalist, and man of science. A third class live above the beauty of the symbol to the beauty of the thing signified; these are wise men. The first class have common sense; the second, taste; and the third, spiritual perception". As we have already said, the tendency of the Eastern mind is to incline to dwell in the contemplation of the fundamental Unity: this is said to lead the true Yogi to spiritual perception. Here in the West we incline, as a people, to the opposite extreme: we are almost entirely occupied with the utility of the symbol; so Emerson says that "being infatuated with the economical uses of things, we do not know that they are thoughts".
It was Emerson's poetical insight and spiritual perception which led him on to the plane of optimism on which he lived. At the root of all things he finds Supreme Wisdom, and believes that out of evil comes good.
" Foolish hands may mix and mar;
Wise and sure the issues are."
The pantheistic idea of all Nature being Divine manifestation is the keystone of Emerson's philosophy. His form of belief was Pantheism; the Pantheism of Theosophy, aspectable Nature being the manifestation of the One Supreme (Atma), differentiating in an infinity of grades of consciousness, and revealing itself to us according to the state of consciousness to which we have ourselves evolved. Emerson says: "The true doctrine of Omni-presence is that God re-appears with all his parts in every moss and cobweb. The value of the Universe contrives to throw itself into every point".
Nature, Emerson finds to be plastic, fluid, a transparent law; the law is governed by and emanates from an Universal Mind: in Theosophy, Mahat. In proportion as our own development has been in harmony with the Universal Mind, so does the Truth in Nature reveal itself to us. In his profound study of Nature Emerson followed this Universal law in its working; he says that ''every chemical substance, every plant, every animal in its growth, teaches the Unity of Cause, the variety of appearance".
His thoughts soared into the altitude of intuition, and taking Genius as our highest form of knowledge — "a larger imbibing by the intellect of Omniscience" — he tells us that "Genius studies the Causal thought, and far back in the womb of things, sees the rays parting from one orb, that diverge ere they fall by infinite diameters; Genius watches the monad [Page 7] through all his masks as he performs the metempsychosis of Nature. Genius detects through the fly, through the caterpillar, through the grub, through the egg, the constant individual; through countless individuals, the fixed species; through many species, the genus ; through all genera, the steadfast type; through all the kingdoms of organised life, the eternal Unity". "Nature is a mutable cloud which is always and never the same.''
"The realms of being to no other bow;
Not only all are Thine, but all are Thou."
Emerson considers the sensible Universe as the crystallization of a thought; thought he regards as the basis of all manifestation. It is thought which wrought the visible Universe through the hands of the builders; and things are words — "words of God". In the essay on "Nature" are the following definitions: — "(1st) Words are signs of natural facts. (2nd) Particular facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts. (3rd) Nature is the symbol of Spirit". And elsewhere we are told, "the definition of Spiritual should be — that which is its own evidence". "The great and crescive self, rooted in absolute nature, supplants all relative existence".
Behind the visible Universe, which is the "coarse effect", is the fine cause, the thought, "which being narrowly seen is itself the effect of a still finer cause". The thought forms the subjective world, and the subjective becomes objective; the thought, the cause; the object, the effect. "The world", says Emerson, "is mind precipitated, and the volatile essence is for ever escaping again into the state of free thought". The Universe is built up of atoms, "and each of these works out, though as it were under a disguise, the Universal problem".
"Spirit that lurks each form within,
Beckons to Spirit of its kin;
Self kindled every atom glows,
And hints the future which it owes."
We will now pass to the consideration of the illusionary nature of the world of the senses, and Emerson's views thereon.
The Sanskrit term "Mâyâ", with which Theosophical students will be familiar, is defined by H. P. Blavatsky as — "Illusion; the cosmic power which renders phenomenal existence and the perceptions thereof possible. In Hindoo philosophy that alone which is changeless and eternal is called reality; all that which is subject to change through decay and differentiation, and which has therefore a beginning and an end, is regarded as Mâyâ — illusion". [Theosophical Glossary by H.P. Blavatsky]
That Emerson held much the same doctrine, there is ample evidence in his writings to show. Himself an idealist, he reckoned the world an appearance, and affirmed facts not affected by the illusions of sense. "The [Page 8] world of the senses", he tells us, "is a world of shows, it does not exist for itself but has a symbolic character."
The conception of things as symbols — symbols of a higher fact which lies behind them, is one that we frequently meet with in Emerson. The impression made by the symbols is a relative one; relative to our own state of consciousness. Such an idea could carry little weight for the materialist who endeavours to arrive at consciousness through matter; but Emerson was distinctly anti-materialistic. Referring to the so-called, exact science, he says that: "The earth and the heavenly bodies, physics and chemistry, we sensually treat, as if they were self-existent; but these are the retinue of that Being we have". So from the Emersonian standpoint this world which from our own daily experience appears so real, and to exist for itself, is fluid and volatile, a transparent law, and not a mass of facts; and the law, he says, dissolves the fact and holds it fluid.
Nature may be said to appear to man in two aspects, as life and as death; the organic and the apparently inorganic. Life is the true, the eternal; death is the transition, the illusion. Emerson says that "Nothing is dead", and, "everything is beautiful seen from the point of the intellect as truth. But all is sour if seen as experience. Details are melancholy; the plan is seemly and noble. In the actual world — the painful kingdom of time and place — dwell care, and canker, and fear. With thought, with the ideal, is immortal hilarity, the rose of joy. Round it all the Muses sing. But grief clings to names, and persons, and the partial interests of today and yesterday".
We find the idea that the phenomenal world is of an illusionary nature, plays an important part in Emerson's philosophy. That his theory and that of Theosophy are much alike, the following quotation will show :— "Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and as we pass through them, they prove to be many coloured lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus". Then follows the suggestion: "Perhaps these subject lenses have a creative power, perhaps there are no objects".
According to Theosophy, there is, underlying the apparently real, but illusionary Universe in which we have our being, the Monad. This is said, in the "Secret Doctrine", to be shot downwards, and to cause evolution by cycling through the seven kingdoms of matter, commencing with the stages called elemental, thence passing through the mineral, vegetable and animal to man. The Monad is the Eternal, unchangeable reality, Atma Buddhi, consciousness; and therefore the various kingdoms of matter, or of phenomenal existence, are spoken of as planes of consciousness. We are said to have ourselves worked out those stages of which we are conscious. [Page 9]
This subject of the evolution of the Monad is one that Emerson deals with very frequently, and his ideas upon the subject seem to be much in keeping with the doctrine expounded in Theosophical writings. He speaks of the passage of "the Monad through all his masks as he performs the metempsychosis of Nature". And he says, "We learn what 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 the oyster; farther yet to Plato, and the preaching of the immortality of the soul. Yet all must come as surely as the first atom has two sides." The two sides of the atom are the opposite poles, "the inevitable dualism that bisects Nature". " Everything in Nature", says Emerson, "is bi-polar, or has a positive and negative pole. Spirit is the positive, the event the negative". Thus we have the pairs of opposites as hot and cold, light and dark, attraction and repulsion, good and evil, etc., etc..
"If we look at the work of Nature, we seem to catch a glance of a system in transition. Plants are the young of the world, vessels of health and vigour; but they grope ever upward towards consciousness; the trees are imperfect men, and seem to bemoan their imprisonment, rooted in the ground. The animal is the novice and probationer of a more advanced order".
"All that is yet inanimate will one day speak and reason."
"The chemic lump arrives at the plant and grows; arrives at the quadruped, and walks; arrives, at the man, and thinks". The transition of the Monad has an ever upward tendency, a striving to become a higher fact in the Universal economy.
Upon this subject of evolution H. P. Blavatsky says: "Evolution is an eternal cycle of becoming, we are taught; and Nature never leaves an atom unused; moreover, from the beginning of the Round, all in Nature tends to become Man. All the impulses of the dual, centripetal and centrifugal Force are directed towards one point — Man". (Vol. II., p. 170.) Emerson believed in this theory: "All the facts", he tells us, "of the animal economy, sex, nutriment, gestation, birth, growth, are symbols of the passage of the world into the soul of man, to suffer there a change, and re-appear a new and higher fact."
In order to show how much in accord are Emerson's views and those of Theosophy, upon the subject of evolution and the "passage of the world into the soul of man", the following quotation from the "Secret Doctrine" is helpful: — [Page 10]
"The next great Manvantara will witness the men of our own life-cycle becoming instructors and guides of a mankind whose Monads may now yet be imprisoned — semi-conscious — in the most intellectual of the animal kingdom, while their lower principles will be animating, perhaps, the highest specimens of the vegetable world,
"Thus proceed the cycles of the septenary evolution, in septennial nature; the spiritual or divine; the psychic or semi-divine; the intellectual, the passional, the instinctual or cognitional; the semi-corporeal and the purely material or physical natures. Thus far, for individual, human, sentient, animal and vegetable life".
That which appeals to our sense of hearing — sound — is said to play an important part in Nature's evolution. In the esoteric philosophy, the sonoriferous ether is an aspect of Akasâ, and it is said to be a builder and destroyer of forms. Recent scientific experiments go to verify the statement. Emerson tells us that "over everything stands its daemon, or soul, and, as the form of the thing is reflected by the eye, so the soul of the thing is reflected by a melody. The sea, the mountain-ridge, Niagara, and every flower-bed, pre-exist, or super-exist, in pre-cantations, which sail like odours in the air, and when any man goes by with an ear sufficiently fine, he overhears them". The true poet is such an one.
According to Theosophical teaching, man's consciousness manifests on those of the seven planes that have already evolved into activity in him; other planes of consciousness being so far latent. This idea is conveyed by Emerson when he says,"Man imprisoned, man crystallized, man vegetative, speaks to man impersonated"; and "everything man sees without him corresponds to his states of mind, and is in turn intelligible to him, as his onward thinking leads him into the truth to which that fact or series belongs".
Man is, according to Emerson, "Nature's finer success in self-explication". This definition appeals to the student of Theosophy, for it embraces the idea of the development coming from within the self to the exterior, the awakening of latent potentialities.
We are told that "there is no bar or wall in the soul where man, the effect, ceases, and God, the Cause, begins"; thus implying the divine nature of the real man, the Ego of Theosophy, sometimes spoken of as "the divine thinker".
The distinction drawn in Theosophy between the higher self and the lower self in man, the permanent individuality and the transient personality, has a mystical parallel in Emerson; for he was used to make notes in his journal under the name of Osman, and his son relates in his biography of his father, previously referred to, that "Osman represents in Emerson's writings, not himself, but his better self; an ideal man put in the same circumstances". In the journal of 1841 under the name of Osman is [Page 11] written: "seemed to me that I had the keeping of a secret too great to be confided to one man; that a divine man dwelt near me in a hollow tree".[ “Emerson in Concord”— by E.W. Emerson]
In Theosophy stress is laid upon the distinction to be drawn between the mind principle in man and the sense perceptions. The Manas, or mind principle, is said to wear a dual aspect, leaning on the one hand towards spirit, on the other towards matter; Buddhi Manas, and Kama Manas. By means of the Theosophical key may be understood what is meant by Emerson when he says, "The consciousness in each man is a sliding scale, which identifies him, now with the First Cause, and now with the flesh of his body: life above life in infinite degrees". The higher mind is immortal, but it is, for the time being, obscured by its more physical garb; so Emerson says, "the influence of the senses has, in most men, overpowered the mind to that degree, that the walls of time and space have come to look real and insurmountable".
There is, I believe, no direct reference in Emerson's writings to the septenary constitution into which man is divided in Theosophy, but he speaks of seven as being the mystical number. Man, he considers as a spark of the Divine Soul, the Over-Soul, held in bondage by a body of sense and matter. This spark is the Thinker. "The key to every man is his thought", he says. Man builds a wall with granite — "The hand that built can topple it down much faster. Better than the hand, and nimbler, was the invisible thought that wrought through it". "We know", says Emerson, "that the ancestor of every action is a thought". "To think is to act” . "Action and inaction are alike to the true". "Why", he asks, "should we be cowed by the name of action? 'Tis a trick of the senses — no more". "All action is of an infinite elasticity, and the least admits of being inflated with the celestial air until it eclipses the sun and moon". This is similar to the teaching of Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gîtâ: — "Whoever sees inaction in action, whoever in inaction action, he, among men, is possessed of spiritual illumination; is the man of right action, and the doer of all action". [“The Bhagavad Gîtâ, or the Lord’s Lay”, translated from the Sanskrit, by Mohini M. Chatterji, M.A. (Chap IV. v 18].
Emerson held to the idea that out of evil comes good. This optimistic view appears to have been based upon an extended perception of nature. He says that "all men in the abstract, are just and good; what hinders them in the particular, is, the momentary predominance of the finite and individual over the general truth", and that, "every evil and good thing is a shadow which we cast".
"Good and evil", says H. P. Blavatsky, "are twins, the progeny of space and time, under the sway of Maya (illusion)". [“The Secret Doctrine,” by H.P. Blavatsky, Vol II. p. 96] [Page 12]
In Hindoo philosophy, for man to attain Nirvana, or the emancipation of the soul, it is necessary that his lower personality be subjugated to his higher self, until eventually only the latter remains; thus man is said to become exempt from re-birth, and freed from the limitations of material and finite existence. Emerson says that from within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all". To become at one with this light is the aim of the Yogi.
We have now to speak of the law of Karma, which is defined by H. P.
Blavatsky as "the law of cause and
effect; physically, action: metaphysically, the law of retribution". Karma is said to follow the reincarnating
Ego, and to be all that remains of the personality after death. It is the cause of re-incarnation, and until
it is compensated, i.e., until a harmony between effects and causes is re-established, reincarnation must go
Emerson speaks of the law of Karma under various names; he calls it "the law of compensation”; "the law of balance"; " the law of action and re-action". It carries with it judgment, rights all wrongs, punishes all vices, and rewards all virtues. In its action it is inviolable. "Cause and effect", he says, "means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect always blooms in the cause, the end pre-exists in the means, the fruit in the seed". This law is justice, and when applied to the actions of individuals carries with it retribution. So Emerson tells us that "every secret is told, every crime is punished, every virtue rewarded, every wrong redressed, in silence and certainty. What we call retribution is the universal necessity by which the whole appears wherever a part appears". "The specific stripes may follow late after the offence, but they follow because they accompany it". "Let man learn that everything in nature goes by law and not by luck, and that what he sows he reaps."
As regards the bearing of the law of Karma on our everyday life, dealings between man and man, Emerson reminds us that: "The absolute balance of Give and Take, the doctrine that everything has its price — and if that price is not paid, not that thing but something else is obtained, and that it is impossible to get anything without its price, is not less sublime in the columns of a ledger than in the budgets of states, in the laws of light and darkness, in all the action and re-action of nature".
As concerns the action of Karma upon the evil doer we are told, "In as much as he (speaking of the criminal) carries the malignity and the lie with him, he so far deceases from nature. In some manner there will be a demonstration of the wrong to the understanding also; but should we not see it, this deadly deduction makes square the eternal account ?" [Page 13]
Of the good, the virtuous:
" Laurel crowns cleave to deserts,
And powers to him who power exerts;
Hast not thy share ? On winged feet,
Lo ! it rushes thee to meet;
And all that nature made thy own,
Floating in air or pent in stone,
Will rive the hills and swim the sea,
And like thy shadow, follow thee."
Following upon the law of Karma, as a natural sequence, we will consider the doctrine of re-incarnation.
There appears to be no direct evidence in Emerson to show that he accepted this doctrine as an established fact, but that he considered it to be a plausible possibility there is no doubt. He speaks of the accumulated knowledge and skill gained by man through the working of the intellect, as being at the end of life just ready to be born. In a more general way he applies the doctrine of re-incarnation to all things. "It is the secret of the world", he tells us, "that all things subsist and do not die, but only retire a little from sight, and afterwards return again".
In the essay on "Immortality" we get an expression of his views concerning the life hereafter. "I think", he says, "all sound minds rest on a certain preliminary conviction, namely, that if it be best conscious personal life shall continue, it will continue; if not best, then it will not; and we, if we saw the whole, should of course see that it was better so". This clearly defines Emerson's attitude, and shows his indomitable faith in the fundamental Wisdom of Nature.
"What one man is said to learn by experience, a man of extraordinary sagacity is said, without experience to divine". "If one should ask the reason of this intuition". says Emerson, "the solution would lead us into that property which Plato denoted as Reminiscence, and which is implied by the Brahmins in Transmigration. The Soul having been often born, having beheld the things which are here, those which are in heaven, and those which are beneath, there is nothing of which she has not gained the knowledge; no wonder that she is able to recollect, in regard to any one thing, which formerly she knew". Thus Emerson accounts for seership or intuition, the faculty of the true mystic; among seers he classes Plato, Socrates, Plotinus, Porphyry, Behmen, Bunyan, Fox, Pascal, Guion and Swedenborg. Behmen, he says, "is healthily and beautifully wise". " Swedenborg delivers golden sayings, which express with singular beauty the ethical laws."
We will now pass on to consider Emerson's views regarding an important subject; important, because in it is involved a fact of considerable moment to the present Theosophical movement, and one with regard to which the public generally would seem to incline to incredulity — Belief in the Masters, Mahatmas, or Great Souls. [Page 14]
It is said that there have been at all times individuals who have had knowledge of and believed in these advanced Souls, "who, having attained to the mastery over their lower principles, are thus living unimpeded by the 'man of flesh', and are in possession of knowledge and power commensurate with the stage they have reached in their spiritual evolution". Such is the definition given by H. P. Blavatsky in her "Theosophical Glossary".
Emerson was one of those who believed in these Great Souls, whom he alludes to as "those rare pilgrims whereof only one or two wander in Nature at once, and before whom the vulgar show as spectres and shadows". He believed that they had knowledge of all natural laws, for he says: "By being assimilated to the original Soul, by whom, and after whom, all things subsist, the soul of man does then easily flow into all things, and all things flow into it, they mix; and he is present and sympathetic with their structure and law". This is precisely what Theosophy claims for the Masters, and Emerson says that "the privilege of this class is an access to the secrets and structure of nature, by some higher method than by experience". This method would doubtless be intuition.
"The reason", Emerson says, "why we do not at once believe in admirable souls, is because they are not in our experience, but, primarily there is not only no presumption against them, but the strongest presumption in favour of their appearance".
The class of advanced persons spoken of in Theosophy as Adepts, who are said to be those who have reached the stage of initiation, would seem to be referred to by Emerson when he says: "But I cannot recite, even thus rudely, laws of the intellect, without remembering that lofty and sequestered class who have been its prophets and oracles, the high priesthood of the pure reason, the Trismegisti, the expounders of the principles of thought from age to age".
The High Initiates, Buddhas, or Christs, the founders of religions who, Theosophy tells us, incarnate in this world from time to time for the furthering of the advancement of humanity, are alluded to by Emerson as "a class of men, individuals of which appear at long intervals, so eminently endowed with insight and virtue, that they have been unanimously saluted as divine; they are usually received with an ill-will because they are new, and because they set a bound to the exaggeration that has been made of the personality of the last divine person". This exaggeration shows itself in the exoteric side of religions by transforming the Great Teacher into a Fetish, or Deity, to be worshipped.
In the light of Theosophy the man of obedience is he whose personality is obedient to the dictates of the higher self, the imperishable Ego. Emerson tells us: "The man of obedience is the man of power, the guide". [Page 15] "This is he who shall marshall us the way we are going, there is no end to his aid". Thus are we told of the Masters.
Emerson should be classed amongst those writers of this century, who have helped to make the present Theosophical movement possible, by preparing men's minds for the body of teaching thereby set forth. Living in an age of general narrow-mindedness in matters of religion, he overlooked his time and saw what was to come in the near future. "The religion", he said, "which is to guide and fulfil the present and coming ages, whatever else it be, must be intellectual. The scientific mind must have a faith which is science". "There will be a new church, founded on moral science, at first cold and naked, a babe in a manger again, the algebra and mathematics of ethical law, the church of man to come, without shawms, or psaltery, or sackbut; but it will have heaven and earth for its beams and rafters; science for symbol and illustration; it will fast enough gather beauty, music, picture, poetry. Was never stoicism so stern and exigent as this shall be. It shall send man home to his central solitude, shame these social, supplicating manners, and make him know that much of the time he must have himself to his friend. He shall expect no co-operation, he shall walk with no companion. The nameless Thought, the nameless Power, the super-personal Heart — he shall repose alone on that. He needs only his own verdict". A more concise and beautiful definition of the body of teaching known as Theosophy it would indeed be difficult to find. Theosophical teaching embodies the conditions here set forth in so far as it is founded upon moral science; it appeals to the intellect, its theories are scientific; and further, it "drives man home to his central solitude", for it says that each must climb the arduous path of existence by himself, and work out his own Karma.
That Emerson perceived and noted the vast changes that were to take place in this latter part of the 19th century, in regard to religious conceptions, and the havoc that science was making with the old orthodox ideas, is evident, for in 1844 he wrote: "in liberated moments we know that a new picture of life and duty is already possible; the elements already exist in many minds around you of a doctrine of life which shall transcend any written record we have".
Emerson's essay, "Swedenborg, or the Mystic", was published six years later; in it he points to the possibilities of the occult science. "One would say", he writes, "that as soon as men had the first hint that every sensible object — animal, rock, river, air — nay, space and time, subsists not for itself, nor finally to a material end, but as a picture-language to tell another story of beings and duties; other science would be put by, and a science of such grand presage would absorb all faculties; that each man would ask of all objects what they mean". [Page 16]
The outbursts of supersensuous perception that we so continually meet with in Emerson's writings are not, as some of his critics would have them to be, mere poetical effusions: they are something far more solid, and appeal to the student of Theosophy as being based upon an insight into and consequent knowledge of Nature's higher laws. Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his “Life of Emerson", speaks of them as "sometimes irresistibly suggesting the close neighbourhood of the sublime to the ridiculous"; such criticism evidently comes from a want of sympathy with Emerson's idealism. But Wendell Holmes's "Life of Emerson", if valueless as criticism, is useful as an index of facts relating to his life and works.
Of Emerson's essays, the two which have perhaps appealed to me most, in connection with the study of Theosophy, are "Nature" and "The Over-Soul".
"Nature" opens with the following verse, which gives us an idea of the breadth of conception which pervades the whole essay: —
"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".
It has been said that in "The Over-Soul" Emerson has attempted
the impossible; if so, the measure of his success would seem to be very great. The Over-Soul is that Unity, "that
great Nature in which we rest as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere". H. P. Blavatsky tells
us that "it is the
soul which interpenetrates and informs all things — a radiation of the ever unknown Universal Absolute.
Our own Egos are identical with it". From the following extract, with which I will conclude, you will be
able to judge how much in harmony is Emerson's idealistic conception with Theosophy: — "The Soul calls
the light its own, and feels that the grass grows and the stone falls by a law inferior to, and dependent on,
its nature. Behold, it saith, I am born into the great, the Universal Mind. I the imperfect, adore my own Perfect.
I am somehow receptive of the great Soul, and thereby I do overlook the sun and the stars, and feel them to be
the accidents and effects which change and pass. More and more he surges of everlasting Nature enter into me,
and I become public and human in my regards and actions. So come I to live in thoughts, and act with energies
which are immortal. Thus reverencing the Soul and learning as the ancient said, that 'its beauty is immense',
man will come to see that the world is the perennial miracle which the soul worketh, and be less astonished at
particular wonders; he will learn that there is no profane history; that all history is sacred; that the Universe
is represented in an atom, in a moment of time. He will weave no longer a spotted life of shreds and patches,
but he will live with a divine Unity,"
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