The American Scholar

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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What are the main influences on the scholar, according to Emerson?

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The main influences the scholar receives, according to Emerson, are nature and the mind of the past as expressed in books. Nature forces the scholar to settle its value in his mind, and books inspire, or should inspire, men to think.

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In his lecture “The American Scholar,” Emerson identifies two main influences on the scholar. First of all, there is nature, before which the scholar “must needs stand wistful and admiring.” Contemplation of the natural world forces the scholar to ask himself—and all scholars in Emerson's day were men—what nature means to him.

Emerson is sure that once the scholar beholds the natural world, with its regularity and circular power, he will see that its spirit resembles his own. Furthermore, he will discover that the laws governing nature are the same as those governing the human mind. This notion closely corresponds to the Romantic idea that we must adapt ourselves to the order and stability of nature, of which we are an intrinsic part.

The second main influence on the scholar identified by Emerson is what he calls the mind of the past, as expressed in books. Emerson argues that there is a fundamental identity of all minds, which enables us to read and enjoy the great works of the past, timeless books that express the contents of a collective mind.

It is because the mind of the past is part of a collective consciousness that it can speak to men living at different times and in different cultures from the authors who wrote such timeless works.

The scholar is influenced by the great books of the past because time has effectively been extracted from them, leaving him to stand in awe “mixed with the joy of surprise” at insights arrived at centuries before he was even born, and which are nonetheless close to his own soul.

Yet these books are ultimately a means to an end. They should inspire the scholar to think for himself. He must not become a pedant or a bookworm, but what Emerson calls Man Thinking.

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