The American Scholar is a lecture that Ralph Waldo Emerson gave to a select audience at Harvard College in which he expresses his sentiments about the American intelligentsia. The central theme of Emerson’s essay is the need to establish a unique American intelligentsia free of any European links.
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Emerson tells his audience to draw inspiration from local sources to create a truly American culture. He cites an American fable that traces the origins of society to ‘one man’ who gave rise to many people to expand the workforce. However, the continued social division has resulted in degeneration of the society and its people, including the scholar who is now a ‘mere thinker’, not a ‘thinking man’.
The major argument that emerges throughout the essay is that to turn a man into a true scholar, people must understand and learn from nature, as this would make them more self-conscious.
Nature shapes human thoughts and actions and thus, helps people to develop productive insights and live a better life. Emerson attributes the failure to find solutions to human problems to our clinging to old-fashioned ideas. A true scholar must free himself from olden ways of thinking that have reduced society’s efficiency.
Emerson believes that age-old ideas contained in books are to blame for the lost efficiency in society. In his view, though the ideas hamper freedom of thought, no one is willing to criticize them. Emerson believes that the information contained in books pose a danger to man’s creativity and initiative.
Books influence human thinking, but their ideas are biased because they based on past standards. Emerson notes that the influence of books is what kills human creative genius and inspiration. In his view, a scholar should use books as a source of information but should think freely as a ‘man thinking’ person. A scholar explores new ideas and perspectives instead of following past and out-dated concepts blindly.
In his view, the American education system needs a review, as it only demands that learners memorize taught the material. It does not teach scholars to be creative and exercise independence of thought. Emerson believes that a scholar learns through observation of the natural world.
Nature and the scholar have two things in common: first, both are boundless and eternal, and second, they are alike in the organization of the intellect. Thus, a deep understanding of nature leads to greater self-awareness. A scholar perceives the natural world in a way that is free of past influence.
Emerson says that scholars should engage in activities as a product of thought. He believes that action or labor, though subordinate to thinking, is necessary as a display of scholarly learning.
Besides books and nature, labor also plays a big role in a scholar’s education. In the last paragraphs of Emerson’s lecture, he discusses the scholar’s role in American society. A scholar, as a wise person, guides others towards a path of knowledge. He communicates his thoughts and universal truths to other people in society with confidence and self-trust.
In his conclusion, Emerson notes that although different ideas have dominated various periods in human history, they all transcend civilizations. He states that self-reliance is a concept that applied to the American scholar who must exercise a great deal of confidence, originality, and autonomy of thought and action. He further states that truly American culture is not pegged on past wisdom, but rather on creativity and independence of thought and action.