The American Scholar Summary

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The American Scholar

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The American Scholar Summary

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The American Scholar is a famous speech by Ralph Waldo Emerson. He delivered it as a lecture to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at First Parish church in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts on August 31, 1837.

In his lecture, Emerson suggests that it is time to create a new American cultural identity. After declaring independence sixty years earlier, he says, it is now time for the United States and American culture to break free from European influence.

Emerson opens his speech by greeting the Harvard College president and members of Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa Society. He indicates that this gathering is unlike the athletic contests of ancient Greece, poetry contests of the Middle Ages, or 19th-century European scientific academies.

Emerson hopes to persuade the gathered group of American intellectuals to stop depending on the European past of which those other gatherings are examples. He proposes a literary renaissance in which Americans will use America as the source for their creative inspiration.

Emerson then uses a fable as an allegory to illustrate his point. In the fable, “One Man” gets divided into many different men. Many men laboring together work more efficiently than One Man on his own. But if the work becomes too subdivided among men, what was once efficient no longer serves the people.

Emerson believes that the current state of scholarship has become a problem. The goal of his lecture is to remind attendees of the education and duties of the scholar, the “Man Thinking”.

After the introduction, the first part of lecture discusses the importance and influence of nature on our minds. A scholar should be educated by observing the natural world. In doing so, scholars will eventually discover the similarities between their minds and nature. Both nature and the human spirit have a circular power with no beginning or end. One can find order in both nature and in the mind. In studying nature, a scholar will realize that as knowledge of nature increases, so too does knowledge of the self. The reverse is also true.

In the second part of the lecture, Emerson discusses the influence of books and past learning on scholars. Books contain important information but they can also be a dangerous influence on the present. The society of the time influences every book written. Emerson argues that each society and age must create its own truth. A society must not let the scholarship of others prevent it from creating its own original thoughts. Emerson values man’s creative genius and original thinking, that is, over being a bookworm who draws on the knowledge of the past.

Despite the dangers, Emerson notes that there are pleasures and benefits to reading if it is done correctly. The knowledge found in books can provide nourishment to great thinkers. All educated people must read books of history and science. Schools must focus on fostering creativity rather than on rote memorization.

In the third section of the lecture, Emerson notes that scholars need to engage in physical as well as mental labors. Physical actions are secondary in importance but still essential. A person’s past actions are converted into thoughts. Our recent activities take some time to turn into a thought, just as larva needs time to turn into a butterfly. The ideal life of a scholar alternates between physical and mental activities. This balance of physical and mental activities leads to a stronger character.

In the fourth and final section of the lecture, Emerson discusses the duties of the American scholar to society. First, scholars must develop the self-trust required to serve as repositories of knowledge. Also, the scholar needs to be able to share the essence of that knowledge, or universal ideas, with people of all classes and ages. Knowledge is a dangerous currency, which requires bravery from the scholar.

Emerson concludes his essay by apologizing for his emphasis on transcendental philosophies rather than on the ideas of previous ages of Western civilization. He compares the development of American civilization with that of a child developing into an adult. He presents the first half of the 1800s as a time of asking questions and of dissatisfaction. Transitional periods, like the one he and his listeners are in at the moment he gives his speech, is a time of comparing the old with the new.

In his lengthy final paragraph, Emerson discusses the importance of the individual. He believes that American’s emphasis on the individual, which he wrote about in his essay “Self-Reliance,” is an important, fundamentally American concept. He encourages American scholars to bravely share this new wisdom with the world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was born in Boston on May 25, 1803, was a transcendentalist poet, essayist, and philosopher. He became the director of a girl’s school in 1821. He became a transcendentalist in 1823, and became a leader in the movement. This inspired his best-known essay, on “Self-Reliance.” He served as mentor and friend to fellow transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. Nicknamed the Sage of Concord, Emerson continued to lecture and write until the late 1870s. He was considered a leading intellectual voice in the United States. He died in Concord, Massachusetts on April 27, 1882.