In this essay, originally a Harvard address, Emerson discusses the nature of the ideal American scholar. In doing so, Emerson is participating in nation building and the process of mythologizing the American identity as distinct from and superior to that which can be found in Europe. European education, to Emerson, over-emphasizes book-learning and tradition.
Emerson identifies three legs that are needed to uphold the well-balanced American scholar: nature, books, and action. It is simply not enough for the American to define himself as a scholar based solely on academics. To be an American scholar means, in addition to reading, cultivating a relationship with nature and becoming a person of action.
Book learning has its place, Emerson says, but is less important than direct experience of the world. It also falls behind following the inner dictates of one's own soul, which is the best guide to our actions. As he puts it:
The soul active sees absolute truth; and utters truth, or creates.
Books are a fallback when nature and action don't work, but the best books are those that inspire us and have been written close to the present moment, for, Emerson asserts, we learn about the past through life in the here and now. He advises reading that touches us emotionally, such as:
Goethe, Wordsworth, and Carlyle. ... This writing is bloodwarm.
The American scholar will be robust, pragmatic, inner-directed, and in touch with the real world. Emerson states, making exalted claims, that as Americans:
We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds. 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.
“The American Scholar” is a speech that Emerson gave to the Harvard inductees of Phi Beta Kappa (a prestigious honor society) in 1837. In this speech, Emerson urges the Harvard students to value self-reliance and never to underestimate the importance of everyday life.
Colleges and books only copy the language which the field and the work-yard made.
Emerson almost immediately mentions three main influences that should direct both scholars and all humanity: the natural world, the wisdom found in books, and the action that should be the result of the first two things. Emerson believes the natural world should be devoutly studied because it is our one true connection to the spiritual world. Only in the natural world can we begin to understand ourselves and make a connection with the divine. Next, books contain the wisdom from the past, but cannot be studied in a solitary fashion (creating “bookworms”). Emerson suggests gleaning the wisdom from books, but then venturing out into new territory. In reality, Emerson hopes that these scholars of the new “America” will create their own literature apart from the past examples from Europe.
Thinking is the function. Living is the functionary.
This last quotation advocates for the importance of action. Pondering the natural world and the literature of Europe will do no good if the scholar does not act upon what he or she learns. Emerson insists, then, that the learned scholar trust himself or herself and exhibit the self-reliance needed to find the spiritual in the smallest parts of everyday life.