The American Scholar

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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How do the works "The American Scholar" and "Self-Reliance" show Emerson's reliance on nature and self?

In both "Self-Reliance" and "The American Scholar," Emerson argues strongly that young college graduates must rely on their consciences to find their path through life. Nature, which is always in harmony with the divine spirit, is their best guide, much more so than tradition and book learning.

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Both "Self-Reliance" and "The American Scholar" privilege nature and the self as guides to living. In both these addresses to young college students, Emerson advises them to, above all, be true to themselves. In "Self-Reliance," he tells college graduates embarking on life that they should listen to what their souls or consciences are telling them about what path to follow, writing,

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.

Tradition and parents or relatives will have ideas about what a young person should do with his life: Emerson says that young people must reject that in favor of trusting and following their inner calling. He says this is what the great men in history, such as Jesus and Galileo, have always done. This generation should follow in those footsteps: in such a way they will do the world the most good.

Likewise, at the end of "The American Scholar," Emerson praises the new emphasis on individualism he finds all around him in America. This will free people to find their best selves. He writes,

A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.

To Emerson, true "men" follow their own inner calling from God in the present moment, rather than trying to rely on tradition or the past.

Nature supports being true to oneself and is the most important teacher, more so than books or the past. Emerson writes in "Self-Reliance" of roses as a model for human behavior because roses (nature) know themselves and are tied to God:

These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day.

Similarly, in "The American Scholar," Emerson points to nature as the best teacher:

The first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind is that of nature.

Emerson is building a theory of education that tries to break away from what he sees as the stifling emphasis on tradition in Europe. He wants American youth to break away from that and create a new tradition of relying on nature and self as way to find out what God wants them to do. By doing this, they will build a better world.

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