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America's Founding Seeker

On his 200th birthday, Ralph Waldo Emerson seems as modern as any bestselling New Age guru

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He doesn't believe in the soul, but the Oversoul. What's the difference?

By putting "over" on it, he says it is not a personal thing. Rather we participate in a soul that is larger than we are. What he's trying to get away from is this idea that there is a core inside of me that is my soul, that I own. He's trying to say that insofar as you're connecting with the soul, you're connecting with something that is much bigger than you are. The Oversoul is a way to talk about God without getting into this anthropmorphic father figure.

What is his legacy?

I wouldn't limit it to one principle or one concept. He gave the culture a vision of religion as the solution or the working toward a solution of how we live our lives more meaningfully. You see that not only in the propositions he makes, but in his own personal difficulties and struggles. It's a mistake to see Emerson as the man who figured out all these answers and was very sure of everything. But here was a man whose vision enspirited his continuing studies, but who was never at rest in his attempt to live to the standard that he held up.

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