Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 973
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The American Scholar calls for cultural and intellectual independence and combines a rejection of industrialization with a nuanced diagnosis of modern alienation. The essay exhibits Emerson’s striking aphoristic formulations, and although the figurative language is sometimes elliptical, its subversive message reverberates through American cultural life and influences thinkers and writers around the world.
The essay, which introduces many of Emerson’s core intellectual themes, first was delivered as an address on August 31, 1837, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was published first as a pamphlet and reissued in 1849 as part of Emerson’s collection Addresses and Lectures. With the essay’s publication, Emerson became one of the foremost public intellectuals in the United States.
Emerson begins the essay with a sketch of the social fragmentation caused by work. Equated with their occupational function, people become tool-like, with a corresponding social arrangement that reinforces this state of affairs. He views this deformation as inherent in the mercantile and manufacturing culture then emerging in the United States. This social fragmentation not only inhibits human potential; in the extreme case of chattel slavery, its soul-destroying consequences are dehumanizing.
In vivid contrast to this lapsed condition, Emerson posits a vital aboriginal state that is characterized by a kind of cosmic consciousness. In this sense his examination of the American scholar is a reformation project, an idealized portrait of intellectual life rooted in the liberated humanity of the individual thinker. In practice this means an outright rejection of conformity and groupthink, including the uncritical acceptance of established creeds and dogmas. For Emerson, systems and institutions promote mental timidity. They diminish the value and intensity of direct experience while undermining the self-reliant agency necessary for authentic engagement with the world.
Emerson then reviews the primary educative influences on what he calls Man Thinking: nature, history, and life as action or praxis. The essay treats nature as endless depth, a mirror image of the mind and the soul. The innate tendency of the mind, says Emerson, is to classify seemingly disparate natural phenomena into tendencies, facts, and laws. Moreover, nature and reason reciprocally form and illuminate one another. In this and other ways, Emerson’s thought exhibits a curious blend of Platonism and pragmatism. As natural philosophy, The American Scholar also hints at Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The section on history focuses on books as the primary repositories of the past. Books represent humankind’s best attempt to distill and preserve the essence of the human condition. Nonetheless, says Emerson, books pose a grave threat to intellectual self-reliance if the creativity and energy used to make them are congealed through misuse. One form of misuse is canonization. Another is the focus on books as aesthetic or material artifacts. Another misuse of books is to use them as purveyors of the status quo. For Emerson, books are tools to inspire and provoke the reader to enlarge and vitalize his or her life. Their ultimate value is instrumental: Properly used, the best books inspire self-trust because they comment on larger concerns, connecting the reader to deep human possibilities and perennial themes. In contemporary terms (and echoing Francis Bacon), Emerson would say that books and knowledge “empower.” This is especially true if they contribute to the reader’s autonomy.
Emerson’s remarks on worldly action are relevant to his ideas on human potential. The scholar immerses him- or herself in the world rather than fleeing it. The world is an occasion to gain valuable knowledge through focused, mindful participation. In advancing such ideas in The American Scholar, Emerson knew that he was countering nineteenth century (and later) stereotypes of people who work primarily with their mind. Although action is itself material to be used for self-knowledge, purposeful action deepens perception and awareness. Distilling value from adversity or the dreariest circumstances results from the creative power to transform all experience into valuable spiritual resources. Emerson emphasizes the mutually reinforcing fusion of thought and action in its most obvious manifestation—the character (and speech) of the self-reliant intellectual. He finds affirmation for this concept in nature by way of a principle he calls polarity.
A central theme in The American Scholar is the striving for wholeness. Since this private aspiration is linked with an individualist ethic and often clashes with social norms and public institutions, Emerson’s project would seem to require a powerful will. In this regard, his ideas resemble the nineteenth century school of thought known as voluntarism, except that Emerson would finally reject this perspective as one-sided. Nonetheless, the harmonization of will, intellect, and soul is difficult, perhaps the chief impediment to the full realization of self-reliance and self-trust.
Emerson concludes The American Scholar with a description of the scholar’s prospects and duties. These duties presuppose certain qualities—freedom, courage, openness, attentiveness, a resolute awareness of the moment—essential for undertaking the task of living and thinking at the highest intensity. However, the abstract, almost visionary argument in this section suggests certain ironies and inconsistencies. Historical figures and trends are used to illustrate and summarize major themes even as Emerson accentuates the atemporal dimensions of his project. A radical individualist philosophy rooted in self-cultivation and instinct becomes, in part, a studied denunciation of eccentricity. Emerson seeks a robust embrace of the universal as a necessary conduit to larger forces and laws, but certain traditions might matter if they promote the scholar’s slow path to self-realization. Emerson celebrates everyday life and vernacular culture even as he diminishes the role of the masses in effecting significant historical change.
In the end, Emerson’s espousal of self-reliant individualism in The American Scholar is an unwavering rejection of whatever blunts creative human potential. Wherever circumstances threaten the value of autonomy, the outspoken message of The American Scholar will offer encouragement, providing a clear alternative to debilitating conformity and spiritual alienation.