The American Scholar, Part I

Much of what Emerson says in “The American Scholar” seems even more relevant today than it did when it was written nearly a hundred and fifty years ago for society has become increasingly segmented, increasingly specialized, over time. The fable he begins this address with suggests that the individual in order to possess “himself” and to sustain society must return to embrace all other laborers. Although this may sound socialistic, it actually lies at the heart of “democracy,” for true democracy balances the life of the individual against the well-being of the society. Until the two are integrated, and in my opinion the transcendentalists came as close as anyone to balancing these two needs, it’s impossible to have a successful society:

The fable implies, that the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters, -- a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.

Emerson seems to be suggesting a virtual Renaissance Man here, someone like Da Vinci who participated in science and art at elite levels. Of course, the sheer amount of knowledge has increased so greatly over the centuries that it is doubtful there will ever be another true Da Vinci, but that does not mean that we do not need specialists who are able to see the “whole picture.” As the Romantics clearly saw, scientists who could only see their specialty presented a clear danger to society.

Emerson clearly foresaw the dangers of an academic elite that retreated to their ivory towers to contemplate their navel and the navel of other scholars.

In this distribution of functions, the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state, he is, Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men's thinking.

If, indeed, because of the demands of specialization, society is going to depend on academia to understand and interpret the world, then it is imperative that the academics also understand and participate in the world outside of academia. If this was dangerous in Emerson’s time, think how much more dangerous it is today with the potential, and potential danger, of genetics, bio-chemistry, physics, etc. Let us hope that the hand on the rudder of scientific development is not the hand of some myopic scholar who has lost sight of society’s overall needs because of an overindulgence in academic minutiae.

In fact, it would seem to me that academic blogs would be a perfect way for scholars to disseminate their ideas to a broader public and, in turn, receive feedback from those outside of academic circles.

Emerson also argues that:

Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this.

Of course, this is eminently clear in the scientific fields, particularly in fields like computer development. While perhaps it’s less clear in an area like poetics, I think it is still absolutely essential that poets, if they are going to serve their function of providing insight into human nature and our ongoing relationship with the world, continue to engage us in new ways of seeing our lives and our world. At the very least, they need to remind us what parts of the past are being lost and need to be preserved before it’s too late.

Emerson’s warning about the dangers of men devoting themselves entirely to the study of books also seems valid:

Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm. Hence, the book-learned class, who value books, as such; not as related to nature and the human constitution, but as making a sort of Third Estate with the world and the soul. Hence, the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Chillingsworth, the cold-blooded scholar who abandons Hester for his studies and then self-righteously punishes her for abandoning him is an excellent example of this kind of individual. Unfortunately, most of us who’ve spent many years in school have also suffered under such teachers, those who can make even the best writers seem to disappear under the weight of a bookshelf of scholarly essays.

One of my greatest disappointments in college was a world-famous critic in early novels at the University of Washington whose classes I waited years to get. It turned out to be one of the worst classes I ever took. He came in, sat down, and read directly from a set of brown, dusty notes that must have been written fifty years earlier. I had trouble staying awake in that classroom and once embarrassed myself by actually snoring in class. Naturally I was embarrassed, but it was the teacher who should have been.

Little wonder the Beats gained appeal precisely because they rejected the literary control of academia. Ironically, though, many somehow ended up teaching part- time in colleges to make a living.

Luckily, teachers have not been able to destroy people’s loves of books precisely because, as Emerson’s argues, books inspire us to live fuller, more meaningful lives:

Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system. The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul.

Though I have never tried to live my life by any one author’s vision, books like Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Ralph Ellisson’s The Invisible Man, or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 have helped me to understand my life and the lives of people around me.

Of course, another function of books is to remind us that, no matter how different the circumstances we live under, all human beings share some basic values:

There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had wellnigh thought and said.

Classic works, particularly those from very different cultures, such as ancient Greek or Roman culture, also remind us that people who are live under very different conditions than we do often have the same dreams that we have. Indeed, such poetry should help to create empathy for all humans, for we all share certain aspirations, so much so that it is our very inability of fulfill those aspirations that may well define us as “human.” It is the human “race” to fulfill these dreams that creates the bonds that, in the end, create society.

What do you think?