The American Scholar

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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What are the main duties of the American scholar that Emerson mentioned in the speech?

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The American scholar—and we can't forget the distinction of the American, as opposed to the European scholar—has, first, a duty not to be a "meek bookworm," docilely reading the great authors of the past and blindly doing what they say. Instead, Emerson argues that it is the duty of the American scholar to think for himself and evaluate these old ideas. A distinctly American scholar must not be content to be derivative—he must be strive for genius which:

looks forward: the eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead

Emerson also states that the American scholar also has a duty not to be a recluse. He must embrace action and experience as the basis of knowledge, along with books. As Emerson says:

I will not shut myself out of this globe of action, and transplant an oak into a flower-pot

Furthermore, unlike the Europeans (who, Emerson says, "whittle" away at one idea until they have nothing left), an American scholar has a duty to be a broad-minded generalist.

In addition, the American scholar must think for himself and trust his own inner voice. By living a balanced life in the world, listening to the divine voice inside, and embracing all knowledge, the American scholar develops what is most essential: character. He has a duty to cultivate character, for, as Emerson puts it:

Character is higher than intellect

Ultimately, Emerson defines the American scholar as distinct from the European scholar by his not being backward-looking, weak, effeminate, timid, reclusive, or vitiated. He is the foundation of the republic and has the duty to nurture the robust, red-blooded, active, American virtues delineated above. Emerson states:

The study of letters shall be no longer a name for pity, for doubt, and for sensual indulgence. . . . A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.

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In his speech "The American Scholar," delivered in 1837, Emerson describes the duties of the scholar as, first and foremost, a commitment to observing the ways of people and to observing him or herself. The scholar is, in Emerson's words, "the world's eye." The scholar must separate fact from appearance and be immune to current fashions. In so doing, the scholar must often be content to live within a world of solitude, poverty, and even hostility.

However, the scholar must never waver from having confidence in his or her convictions, and the scholar must come to know his or her mind so that he or she can understand other people's minds. As Emerson writes, "Not he is great who can alter matter, but he who can alter my state of mind." He believes that a true scholar makes what he or she studies great, just as Linnaeus made the study of botany great. The scholar does not always aim at the great or powerful. Instead, as Emerson writes: "I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds." He believes that the scholar must study what is considered insignificant to find the essence of what is great and eternal. 

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Duty number one is that the scholar needs to develop an incredible amount of self trust.  In addition to that, the scholar needs to be a source of knowledge and wisdom for other people.  

A second duty of the American scholar is to endure self-sacrifice.  That might mean solitude.  It might mean poverty.  It could mean boredom.  It does not matter to Emerson, because if those things are done to aid in the development of duty number one, then it is for the best.  

The last duty of the American scholar is to always preserve the wisdom of the past and if need be, communicate that wisdom and feeling to the public.  What that means is that the American scholar needs to stay very independent.  He must be free to judge and speak as is NEEDED regardless of what public opinion might think or feel about it.  

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