The American Scholar "Wherever Macdonald Sits, There Is The Head Of The Table"

Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Wherever Macdonald Sits, There Is The Head Of The Table"

Context: In this oration, delivered at Harvard in 1837, Emerson explores the nature and duties of the scholar, especially the American scholar. The true scholar is "Man Thinking," the self-trusting man who fearlessly refuses to "defer . . . to the popular cry." The scholar is influenced by Nature, the complement of the human soul, and by Books, which reflect the inspiration of the Oversoul. The scholar should read only enough of a book to see how the author has transmuted "life into truth." The American scholar should break free of Europe and develop his own soul and his own culture. Books are of value only as an inspiration. "The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul . . . The soul active sees absolute truth and utters truth, or creates. In this action it is genius . . . genius looks forward . . . genius creates." Action is essential to the scholar; "Man Thinking must not be subdued by his instruments." Action and labor produce wisdom: "Only so much do I know, as I have lived." "Life is our dictionary." The scholar's duty is "to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances." He is a free man and a fearless leader. A genius with a firm will and a strong character is always accepted as a leader, and his spiritual power is evident in any situation:

. . . Not he is great who can alter matter, but he who can alter my state of mind. They are the kings of the world who give the color of their present thought to all nature and all art, and persuade men by the cheerful serenity of their carrying the matter that this thing which they do is the apple which the ages have desired to pluck, now at last ripe, and inviting nations to the harvest. The great man makes the great thing. Wherever Macdonald sits, there is the head of the table. . . . The day is always his who works in it with serenity and great aims. The unstable estimates of men crowd to him whose mind is filled with a truth. . . .