'Oneness as a philosophy of life' is theme of new book by Penn State professor

Susan Burlingame
June 22, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A new book by Jeremy David Engels, Penn State professor of communication arts and sciences and Barry Director of the Paterno Fellows Program in the College of the Liberal Arts, comes at a time when, according to Engels, “so much of our rhetoric and discourse today is dominated by division, hateful emotions, individualism and separation.”

“The Ethics of Oneness: Emerson, Whitman, and the Bhagavad Gita” (University of Chicago Press, 2021) is the culmination of several years of work.

“I’ve always been interested in the traditions in American history and culture that are more focused on what we share rather than how we are different,” Engels said. “What are the foundations for thinking about oneness and unity and interbeing? Yoga has long been popular in America, and it is important in my own life. The word ‘yoga’ has almost 80 different meanings, but the Sanskrit root tends to mean something like ‘union’ or ‘connection.’ This book is my attempt to understand my own relationship to yoga, which is ancient but has meant so many things in so many different moments in so many different cultures."

For the book, Engels said he was interested in American philosophers and writers and thinkers who were encountering ideas associated with yoga traditions during the 1800s.

“I realized very quickly that these conversations about yoga and spirituality were also conversations about politics and democracy — about how we relate to each other more peacefully and justly as well as how we relate to the earth in more sustainable ways,” he said.

The book begins with a historical survey about how two important American writers — Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman, one of Engels’ favorite writers — engaged with certain traditions of Indian thought about oneness, particularly in the Bhagavad Gita — an ancient scripture that is considered to be one of the main holy scriptures for Hinduism. It continues with a philosophical discussion of some of the challenges of oneness.

“If everything is one, does that mean we can also be different?” Engels asked. “In the traditions I value, oneness does not mean sameness. To study oneness is also to study questions of diversity, inclusion and ethics, of death and the body.”

Engels said that while the book was nearly complete before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, he decided to update the philosophical chapters, as well as the book’s conclusion, with the pandemic in mind.

“I was thinking a lot about the ‘oneness panic’ brought on by the pandemic,” he said. “People have long been encouraged to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals, but all of the sudden we have been forced to reckon with the fact that we are much more interconnected than maybe we would realize — or even like.”

The last two chapters of the book explore the implications and the ethics of oneness, first through Emerson’s work and then through Whitman’s.

“The book is an attempt to try to understand oneness as a philosophy, as an ethic, as a practical philosophy of life. How do we pull oneness out of the clouds and actually bring it into our lives?” Engels asked, noting that oneness in the wrong mindset can become totalitarian and end up excluding people or labeling them as "unworthy." “I think of the book as a call to action. If we embrace oneness, what do we need to do in our lives to ensure that that oneness is ethical and democratic and inclusive?”

Engels said his fondest hope is that “The Ethics of Oneness” starts a conversation. “As a scholar, I see myself as someone who is trying to create openings for conversation, for connection, and ultimately for healing. I would love it if this became a book that people read and engage with and disagree with and have conversations about. That’s actually the work of democracy and the reason why democracy is the best form of government. Democracy brings people together and allows us to draw on a diverse set of wisdom and life experiences.”

Denise Solomon, head of the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences, observed, “From his first book, 'Enemyship,' followed by 'The Politics of Resentment' and 'The Art of Gratitude,' Professor Engels has grappled with fundamental questions about human co-existence. 'The Ethics of Oneness’ continues this theme, while taking the conversation in an exciting new direction. It’s Professor Engels’ ability to probe these complexities that makes him an award-winning scholar as well as an award-winning teacher.”

Engels is the guest for an upcoming Democracy Works podcast, during which he discusses his vision for democracy as outlined in the book. The podcast airs June 28 and can be accessed here. Click here for more information about Engels’ scholarship and yoga.

  • Engels_Oneness_Cover

    In “The Ethics of Oneness: Emerson, Whitman, and the Bhagavad Gita” (University of Chicago Press, 2021), Professor Jeremy Engels explores how great American writers engaged with thoughts of oneness.

    IMAGE: Courtesy of University of Chicago Press

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Last Updated June 28, 2021