Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar”


          What makes Emerson’s writing compelling is that he blends together seemingly vague, dreamy ideas with moments of clarity and precision.  Perhaps unusual for him, his 1837 speech “The American Scholar” is extremely well organized, testifying to his mastery as a writer, which makes me believe that what appears vague is actually lucid.  The problem lies in the subject.  Because his argument has a metaphysical foundation, any appeal to that foundation creates a difficulty in language, and also in comprehension.  In short, to write about the ineffable, he is required to approximate his meaning, often by way of metaphor and example.  Ironically, the surface of his argument, which the reader accepts as understandable, if not illuminating, is set upon a metaphysical foundation. 

            In “The American Scholar,” Emerson declares that the “scholar is that man who must take up into himself all the ability of the time, all the contributions of the past, all the hopes of the future” (70), who – with self-trust and creativity – needs “to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts admist appearances” (63).  While this statement (which is the thrust of his argument in a nutshell) looks straightforward, each point arises out of a metaphysical perspective.  This is true no matter which point is unpacked and analyzed, for the scholar’s relationship to the present, the past, and the future is all determined by his relationship to the “Divine Soul” that unites all people.  For example, in his discussion of the past’s influence on the scholar, Emerson limits the role of books, saying that if books are too revered, the reader will possess a “sluggish and perverted mind” (57).  The “right use” of books is “to inspire” (57), because in every man is “the active soul” (57), which, if not obstructed, sees “absolute truth” (57).  This soul ought to be creative and progressive, and if the man is not creative, if he allows himself to be obstructed, then “the pure efflux of the Deity is not his” (58).  These “creative manners,” “actions,” and “words” are not only the “efflux of the Deity,” but also spring spontaneously “from the mind’s own sense of good and fair” (58).  This implies a unity of the individual soul with the Divine Soul, for going into oneself leads to Divinity.  Also, there is a unity with other individual souls, for Emerson writes, the scholar “then learns, that in going down into the secrets of his own mind, he has descended into the secrets of all minds”, and what he finds in himself is “universally true” (64).  In short, “It is one soul which animates all men” (67).  Thus, when Emerson articulates the proper use of books, his position is rooted in a pantheistic understanding of man’s connection to the “One” (as he calls it in his essay “Self-Reliance”).

            When Emerson talks about the other influences on the scholar (nature and action), he once again appeals to his metaphysical foundation.  When Emerson says that the duties of the scholar require “self-trust,” he alludes to more than just confidence, courage, and conviction – but furthermore, the truth that is inside himself ought to be the scholar’s guide, for when it is unclouded by “pretension” and “appearance,” this truth can be apprehended spontaneously, such as by intuition or whim.  He will find it “in himself” (65).  And, when Emerson looks hopefully to “the near, the low, the common” (68) his hope rests upon his belief that Divinity extends everywhere, and even here, truth can be found, because “one design unites and animates the farthest pinnacle and the lowest trench” (69).

            Of course, this all comes down to metaphysical idealism.  When Emerson says the duty of the scholar is “to guide men by showing them facts admist appearances” (63), these appearances that cloud the facts are not merely just unexamined customs and traditions.  If we take his metaphysics seriously, then the appearances are connected to the material world.  Just as in Plotinus and the neo-Platonists, the physical realm is subordinate to the mind and the soul.  Referring to the soul’s connection to nature, Emerson says, “One is seal, and one is print” (56).  In other words, nature (the print) is a copy or image – the manifestation of “a pure abstraction of the human mind” (the seal).  Thus, following a pantheistic model, Emerson promotes idealism over materialism. 

            The question, then, must be asked: If the foundation is challenged or denied, then to what extent do the duties of the scholar remain intact?  If we want to keep the high calling of the scholar, the humanist agenda, and the egalitarian implications, then do we need to provide another foundation or accept Emerson’s?  Can we embrace Emerson in part?


Michael James Rizza has an MA in creative writing from Temple University in Philadelphia and a PhD in American Literature from the University of South Carolina. He has published academic articles on Don DeLillo, Milan Kundera, Harold Frederic, and Adrienne Rich. His award winning novel Cartilage and Skin was published by Starcherone Books in November 2013. His short fiction has appeared in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, Switchback, and Curbside Splendor. He has won various awards for his writing, including a fellowship from the New Jersey Council on the Arts and the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction. His scholarly monograph entitled The Topographical Imagination of Jameson, Baudrillard, Foucault, is forthcoming with Davies Group, Publishers. He is currently at work on a funny, fast paced, literary novel called Domestic Men’s Fiction. He teaches at Kean University. He lives in New Jersey with his wife Robin and their son Wilder, who was named after a character in DeLillo’s White Noise.

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