The American Scholar

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Start Free Trial

Please provide a critical analysis of “The American Scholar.”

You could critically analyze Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar” by connecting his points to debates happening right now. You could link his argument that writers are inordinately idolized to arguments that celebrities, politicians, and so on are being overly idolized. More so, you could connect Emerson’s emphasis on physical action to the ways in computers and phones diminish physical movement.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are several ways you could critically analyze Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar.” You could start by trying to talk about the relevance of his ideas. Many of his arguments appear to correlate to discussions and debates that are happening right now.

At one point, Emerson warns against the idolization of past writers like John Locke and Cicero. He says people tend to forget that such classic writers were people like them. You might relate Emerson’s point to how people right now might forget that politicians, celebrities, or influncers on social media with heaps of followers are also only people.

Emerson’s speech also connects to contemporary society when he emphasizes action. Remember, Emerson puts down the belief that a scholar is “unfit for any handiwork or public labor.” He believes it’s vital for a scholar to physically move around. You might link Emerson’s emphasis on action to current writers’ exhortation to engage with more than a computer or a phone.

If you’re not so interested in connecting Emerson’s ideas in “The American Scholar” to debates happening right now, you might want to do a critical analysis of what Emerson means by “life.” Near the middle, Emerson says that even when a painter no longer paints, even when a reader doesn’t want to read another book, they still have “the resource to live.” For him, living is a “total act” while thinking is a “partial act.” You might analyze what makes living “total” or complete. You could think about how if someone only paints, if they only read, or if they only labor, they might not be living a complete or “total” life according to Emerson.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles
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.
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Ralph Waldo Emerson had just resigned from his position as a Unitarian minister before giving the address and was, to a degree, reflecting in it on his own role as lecturer, writer, and public intellectual. In the address, he considers what students must do to become his ideal of the American scholar. He divides the path of formation of character and intellect into three parts: nature, the mind of the past (i.e., books), and action. As a Unitarian, he saw God as immanent within nature and thus believed that by "reading" the natural world we could learn about God and morality. Books enable us to learn and build on the great thinkers of the past. Finally, we can only genuinely know moral truths by acting morally. Emerson rejects the mechanical and dehumanized world of industrial society along with a purely abstract conception of knowledge.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team