“The Over-Soul” was published in 1841 in Essays: First Series. The essay elaborates upon the relationship between the soul and God that he first explored in Nature. Unsurprisingly, scholars consider the essay as the classical statement of his religious ideas.
Emerson prefaces his essay with two poetic epigraphs: "Psychozoia, or, the Life of Soul" by Henry More and a selection by Emerson (later published as “Unity”). The selection from More’s poem raises the idea of not only the soul of the individual, but also the intimate relationship of all souls to God. They are bound to one another. Emerson’s selection builds on this idea, drawing attention to both the constitutive relationship between opposite pairs (e.g., “east and west” and “Night and Day”) – like the relationship between the individual soul and God – and the unifying “power / That works its will on age and hour” and infuses “Every quality and pith” (i.e., God, or the “Over-Soul”).
While Emerson does not explicitly do so, his essay can be divided into four sections as a guide: 1) defining the Over-Soul (paragraphs 1-10), 2) the relationship between the Over-Soul and society (paragraphs 11-15), 3) revelation of the Over-Soul (paragraphs 16-21), and 4) the relationship between the Over-Soul and individuals (paragraphs 22-30).
Defining the Over-Soul (paragraphs 1-10)
Why, asks Emerson, do we have such extraordinary hopes for human life? Where does our “universal sense of want and ignorance” stem from? Emerson argues they derive from our connection to the Over-Soul. The Over-Soul contains and unites all individual souls, and acts as the animating force behind each individual. “When it breathes through his intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through his will, it is virtue; when it flows through his affection, it is love."
If such a description sounds opaque, Emerson admits to describe the Over-Soul in words is an act of futility, for one can only understand if one yields to and experiences the Over-Soul for oneself. Yet to a certain extent, we are all aware of its presence intuitively in those moments the soul contradicts all normal experience by abolishing time and space. Such moments overpower the human mind, so convinced of the absolute reality of time and space. For example, we are aware of a certain sense of universal and eternal beauty, which “belongs to ages than to mortal life.” When we think of a verse of Shakespeare, profound quote by Plato, or the teachings of Jesus, we feel the reach of their divine thought across the centuries in the present.
Nonetheless, our soul can grow to more intimately connect with and experience the Over-Soul. Such growth occurs not by gradation, but by evolution or ascension into a new state of virtue.
The Over-Soul and Society (paragraphs 11-15)
As the Over-Soul unites all individual souls, so it unites all of society. Such unification manifests itself in the idea of a common nature. When we refer to our common nature in conversations with one another, we do not refer to a social connection, but rather an impersonal one -- in other words, a connection to God.
Revelation (paragraphs 16-21)
Beyond our implicit awareness of the Over-Soul though, how do we recognize our soul and its connection to the Over-Soul? Emerson argues the soul manifests itself through revelation. While the popular conception of revelation is of fortune telling, such a practice is low, sinful, and ultimately futile. God will provide no answer to questions of the future, for humans should live in the present and accept “the tide of being which floats us into the secret of nature.” Revelation properly understood is instead the “influx of the Divine mind into our mind,” and can be seen all across the history of religion. When our soul mingles with the Over-Soul in a moment of revelation, we receive a new truth or perform a great feat. Such moments are filled with the sublime, which leads to obedience to and insight into the Over-Soul.
Our capacity for revelation also allows us to see and know each other. For as we connect with the Over-Soul, we also connect with one another. We can perceive the spirit of our fellow humans. We place our faith in some, yet not others, based on their character, even if we have no foreknowledge of or significant acquaintance with them. “We are all discerners of spirits.”
The Over-Soul and the Individual (paragraphs 22-30)
As such, the state of our soul “we shall teach, not voluntarily, but involuntarily.” Regardless of superficial qualities like age, actions, or learning, we can distinguish when one has “the tone of seeking” or “the tone of having” an intimate connection with God. In particular, one whose soul has ascended to God is plain and true; has no rose-color, no fine friends, no chivalry, no adventures; does not want admiration; dwells in the hour that now is, in the earnest experience of the common day, — by reason of the present moment and the mere trifle having become porous to thought, and bibulous of the sea of light.
Such an individual experiences ongoing revelations.
As all can achieve such intimacy with God, Emerson advises we all recognize how God dwells within us. Such recognition does not occur through (established) religion, but rather a personal effort and belief. Indeed, Emerson ends with a critique of established religion, which appeals to the number of its followers, and thus stands on authority, rather than faith itself. To connect with the Over-Soul, one must have faith in oneself, and thus in the soul.