The American Scholar

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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What does Emerson mean by "the one thing in the world of value is the active soul" in The American Scholar?

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When Emerson writes that "the one thing in the world of value is the active soul," he means that an individual who relies on his own inner voice and consults his experience rather than books alone will tap most fully into his creative genius. This creativity, which emerges from the active soul, is forward-looking and divine and thus of greatest value to humankind.

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Emerson, as he often does in his writing, pits book learning against experiential learning. He opens the paragraph in which he advocates for the "active soul" by mentioning books. He states that they are the "best of things" if used well; otherwise, they are the "among the worst."

In contrast, nothing is better than "the active soul." This is the spirit within an individual that allows him to see truth. It is creative, and its activity leads to the emergence of fresh genius in a new generation. Books, schools, and institutions, however, contain only records of past genius. Their danger is their tendency to freeze thinking in the past, as if the present and future cannot advance over what has already been done.

"Genius," Emerson says, "always looks forward." It is what the active soul seeks. Genius, the fruit of the active soul, is the outcome of the spirit in a person who is not relying on the past or books alone for guidance but on experience, nature, and introspection. Genius is always creative and always creates. Whatever creates, Emerson asserts, is divine. This makes the active soul "the one thing in the world of value."

In advocating for the active soul, Emerson is participating in creating a American mythology that asserts the American experience as forward-looking and expansive, distinct from a European ethos that looks to the past.

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