Emerson and Tripartite Soul Theory
RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1803-1882) was, in his time, the leading voice of intellectual culture in the United States. He remains widely influential
to this day through his essays, lectures, poems, and philosophical writings.
In the later eighteen-twenties Emerson read, and was very significantly influenced by, a work by a French philosopher named Victor Cousin.
A key section of Cousin's work reads as follows:
"What is the business of history? What is the stuff of which it is made? Who is the personage of history? Man : evidently man and
human nature. There are many different elements in history. What are they? Evidently again, the elements of human nature. History is
therefore the development of humanity, and of humanity only; for nothing else but humanity develops itself, for nothing else than
humanity is free. …
… Moreover, when we have all the elements, I mean all the essential elements, their mutual relations do, as it were, discover
themselves. We draw from the nature of these different elements, if not all their possible relations, at least their general
and fundamental relations."
Introduction to the History of Philosophy (1829)
Emerson, alike with very many of the thinking persons living in the USA in the eighteen-thirties who had the inclination and leisure
time to interest themselves in ideas, was greatly influenced by the works of Victor Cousin!
Such ideas as those expressed in Cousin's work were central to the emergence of a New England Transcentalism movement of which
Emerson was a leading figure.
One of Emerson's biographers has described Emerson as having become "the leading voice of intellectual culture in the United States".
Even before he had first read Cousin, (in 1829), he had expressed views in his private Journals which suggest that he accepted that
Human Nature, and Human Beings, tend to display three identifiable aspects and orientations:
Imagine hope to be removed from the human breast & see how Society will sink, how the strong bands of order & improvement will be
relaxed & what a deathlike stillness would take the place of the restless energies that now move the world. The scholar will
extinguish his midnight lamp, the merchant will furl his white sails & bid them seek the deep no more. The anxious patriot who
stood out for his country to the last & devised in the last beleagured citadel, profound schemes for its deliverance and
aggrandizement, will sheathe his sword and blot his fame. Remove hope, & the world becomes a blank and rottenness.
(Journal entry made between October and December, 1823)
In all districts of all lands, in all the classes of communities thousands of minds are intently occupied, the merchant in his
compting house, the mechanist over his plans, the statesman at his map, his treaty, & his tariff, the scholar in the skilful history & eloquence of antiquity, each stung to the quick with the desire of exalting himself to a hasty & yet unfound height above the level of his peers. Each is absorbed in the prospect of good accruing to himself but each is no less contributing to the utmost of his ability to fix & adorn human civilization.
(Journal entry of December, 1824)
Our neighbours are occupied with employments of infinite diversity. Some are intent on commercial speculations; some engage
warmly in political contention; some are found all day long at their books …
(This dates from January - February, 1828)
Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his brothers, were born into a family situation which placed great stress on their becoming well-educated.
Even though their father, who had served as a Christian minister in Boston, Massachussets, unfortunately died young leaving his
family in straitened financial circumstances his widowed wife, and his sister, made great personal sacrifices such that four young Emerson
brothers attended a well-regarded secondary school and followed college courses subsequently.
The family also continued a paid subscription to a members-only lending library based in Boston giving them access to a wide range of relatively thought-provoking
In a letter to his brother William Emerson, (who was then a lawyer by profession), of May 24, 1831, Emerson wrote:
"I have been reading 7 or 8 lectures of Cousin — in the first of three vols. of his philosophy. A master of history, an epic he makes
of man & of the world — & excels all men in giving effect, yea, éclat to a metaphysical theory. Have you not read it? tis good reading
— well worth the time — clients or no clients."
(Letters I, 322). Ralph L. Rusk
The three Journal extracts quoted above can surely be taken as indicating that Ralph Waldo Emerson either already accepted,
or was intuitively prepared to accept, that Human Nature exhibited "Scholar-Merchant-Patriot" - Tripartite Soul - potentiality: years before
his being influenced by Victor Cousin.
It is one of those fables which out of an unknown antiquity convey an unlooked-for wisdom, that the gods, in
the beginning, divided Man into men, that he might be more helpful to himself; just as the hand was divided
into fingers, the better to answer its end.
The old fable covers a doctrine ever new and sublime; that there is One Man,--present to all particular men
only partially, or through one faculty; and that you must take the whole society to find the whole man. Man
is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman,
and producer, and soldier. In the divided or social state these functions are parcelled out to individuals,
each of whom aims to do his stint of the joint work, whilst each other performs his. The fable implies that
the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other
laborers. But, unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to
multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot
Ralph Waldo Emerson - (from his celebrated - The American Scholar - address of August, 1837)
In what is perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson's most famous essay - 'History' (of 1841) - we read such things as:
… There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. He
that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate. What Plato has thought,
he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has be-fallen any man, he can
understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is
the only and sovereign agent.
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is illustrated by the entire series of days.
Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes
forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in
appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact; all the facts of history pre-exist
in the mind as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of nature
give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt,
Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy,
are merely the application of his manifold spirit to the manifold world. …
… We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history in our private experience, and verifying them
here. All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography. Every
mind must know the whole lesson for itself, -- must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it
does not live, it will not know. …
… In old Rome the public roads beginning at the Forum proceeded north, south, east, west, to the centre
of every province of the empire, making each market-town of Persia, Spain, and Britain pervious to the
soldiers of the capital: so out of the human heart go, as it were, highways to the heart of every object
in nature, to reduce it under the dominion of man. A man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose
flower and fruitage is the world. His faculties refer to natures out of him, and predict the world he is to
inhabit, as the fins of the fish foreshow that water exists, or the wings of an eagle in the egg
presuppose air. He cannot live without a world. …
Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end
preexists in the means, the fruit in the seed.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
All goes to show that the soul in man is not an organ, but animates and exercises all the organs; is not a function, like the power of memory, of calculation, of comparison, but uses these as hands and feet; is not a faculty, but a light; is not the intellect or the will, but the master of the intellect or the will; is the background of our being, in which they lie—an immensity not possessed and cannot be possessed. 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.
Ralph Waldo Emerson - The Over-Soul