Emerson gave this address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard in 1837, to the top twenty-five students from each graduating class. In it he presents, to the best and brightest young scholars of the day, his ideas and ideals of what the true American scholar should be.
The lecture is divided into three parts, each discussing a component of what makes a great scholar. The first is the study of nature. In nature Emerson sees the interconnection of all things, for example, how mathematic principles that arose from the observational human mind are discovered to in fact be the underpinnings, the workings, of the natural world. Emerson concludes that we are one with and inseparable from nature, saying,
The ancient precept, "Know thyself," and the modern precept, "Study nature," become at last one maxim.
The second section discusses the mind of the past, of knowledge that came before, primarily through books. Emerson warns of the scholar placing too much reverence on old, canonical books, noting that even though thoughts found in them may have become looked at as immortal, they are always marked by the time they were written in and are therefore bound to that time. All books are in some ways perishable, Emerson says, and so new ones must constantly be written; new creation is vital.
Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding . . . to create is proof of a divine presence.
In this regard, he addresses those scholars who may become mere parrots of accepted academic thought—bookworms in dimly lit, dusty libraries—giving the warning,
Genius is always sufficiently the enemy of genius by over-influence.
The third section deals with the need for scholars to also be persons of action, so as to bridge the divide between "practical men" and "speculative men," between the businessman or working man and ivory-tower academics. Emerson stresses that everything we truly know, we know through experience, not merely through intellectualism—books serve experience; they don’t provide it.
Life is our dictionary. Years are well spent in country labors; in town; in the insight into trades and manufactures; in frank intercourse with many men and women.
To be a true scholar, Emerson is finally saying, people must become scholars of three things: the natural world, intellectual thinking, and, most importantly, life itself.