The Ethics of Oneness: Emerson, Whitman, and the Bhagavad Gita

The Ethics of Oneness: Emerson, Whitman, and the Bhagavad Gita

Jeremy David Engels
Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2021. 265 pp., paper, $27.50.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the nineteenth-century’s great American philosophers, and Walt Whitman, whose poetry was beloved by so many in that day and this, are connected by Jeremy David Engels in his latest book, The Ethics of Oneness: Emerson, Whitman, and the Bhagavad Gita.

As Engels notes in his introduction, “Neither Emerson nor Whitman makes a case for oneness. Oneness is. The one, the oversoul, the all: this is an a priori for Emerson, and the mystical root center of Whitman’s poetry.”

Certainly Engels touches on a subject that permeates many religious and spiritual presentations in today’s world, but I’ve often wondered whether those who speak of it so vociferously really know what they’re talking about.

In his famous essay “The Over-Soul,” Emerson mentions “that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other.” In developing ideas like this, Emerson drew upon the Eastern philosophies he found in the Bhagavad Gita. Indeed his embrace of these philosophies resulted in his dismissal from giving commencement addresses at Harvard Divinity School.

Learning to recognize that oversoul in one another becomes our task, and it can be aided by Emerson’s interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita. As Engels put it, “If we are devoted to oneness, we will talk to every person we meet as though they are an avatar of the divine, a walking, talking god on earth who is sacred and demands the utmost reverence.”

How do we mesh our idea of oneness with that of diversity, which society makes so much about today? Emerson and Whitman diverge in this regard. Emerson’s view of oneness was found “through the lens of nondualistic advaita Vendanta,” Engels points out. Whitman was the more mystical of the two men. His philosophy of oneness “was much closer in spirit to Bhedabheda Vedanta, a philosophy that charts a middle path between Vedantic dualism (dvaita) and nondualism (advaita) by incorporating elements of both.” 

Engels adds, “Whitman recognizes and celebrates diversity—and this leads to a second divergence from Emerson,” for whom “oneness is an ontological state to be discovered, whereas for Whitman oneness is also an ontological reality that individuals can and ought to reproduce through their speech and action in the broken, zugzwang world that we have created for ourselves.” (Zugzwang is a situation in chess and other games wherein one player is put at a disadvantage by his obligation to make a move.)

Emerson has opinions, as many of his essays elucidate quite clearly, especially in essays such as “Self-Reliance” and “Fourierism and the Socialists.” Engels observes that “Whitman’s poetry is inclusive and cosmic in a way that Emerson’s rhetoric is not.”

To speak of oneness—a divine oneness—requires humility and inclusion. Whitman “rhapsodizes a ‘spirituality’ and ‘theology’ that is common to ‘humankind’ (and not just ‘mankind’); his is a oneness of the ‘All’ that rests on ‘the idea of All.’” Whitman “styled himself a prophet of cosmic democracy,” notes Engels, in that the “purpose of democracy is to facilitate rapport . . . of being at one with the universe and all beings.”

That’s a big pill for most of us to swallow, especially in this time of political separation and conflict, and Engels does not avoid that question in his chapter “Democracy.”

“Diversity is real, but absolute separation is an illusion,” he reminds us. “We are one.” Most importantly, we need to be aware that “the ethics of oneness cannot be an ethics of sameness,” he adds. “Whitman is at his best when he refuses to collapse differences into sameness, when he recognizes that others’ experiences are incommensurate even though they share the same divine scaffolding.”

Legislated diversity, as promoted today, often seems ironically to exclude many differences, some of which are even the targets of a new-found discrimination. Whitman, given his metaphysical ideal of oneness, may not have approved of this tack, as his “philosophy of oneness did not actively seek to erase differences; instead it sought to sanctify all lives in order to avoid the active exclusions and dehumanization of whole groups of Americans,” writes Engels.

Engels addresses the New Thought movement that arose during the lifetime of Emerson and Whitman, especially its spiritual engagement with Emerson and thus with the Bhagavad Gita. Emerson, says Engels, “taught a ‘law of mutuality’ that boiled down to the basic lesson: ‘There is but one.’”

New Thought is steeped in Emerson’s philosophy and Transcendentalism. In a 1959 talk, for example, Ernest Holmes, founder of the New Thought movement called Science of Mind, quoted him as saying, “There is one mind common to all men.”

Oneness can be a difficult concept to grasp in this dualistic level of consciousness. As this book suggests, oneness must be seen as harmony among differences, much like playing a piano, on which eighty-eight different keys with eighty-eight different tones, when played in synchrony, create a beautiful harmony. Engels does a masterful job of showing us how these two great nineteenth-century philosophers—one a mystical poet, the other a prolific essayist—created new ways of looking at early American life from the point of view of Eastern spiritual traditions.

Clare Goldsberry’s latest book, The Illusion of Life and Death, will be published in 2021 by Monkfish.