The American Scholar, Part II

In the second half of “The American Scholar” Emerson emphasizes the importance of physical labor to the scholar:

When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.

The apparent emphasis here is on being in touch with the world. Although I’m not entirely sure I understand the reasons for this emphasis on action in America, it is a pragmatism that seems to be characteristic of America.

While Emerson states that action is secondary to the scholar, he argues that it is also vital because it puts the scholar back in touch with all men, in touch with mankind, if you will:

Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth. Whilst the world hangs before the eye as a cloud of beauty, we cannot even see its beauty. Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind. The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action. Only so much do I know, as I have lived. Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not.

This emphasis on action certainly seems to foreshadow the Pragmatism later made famous by Charles Pierce and William James. According to the World Book encyclopedia that came with my new Apple iBook, “James's interpretation of pragmatism stated that the meaning of an abstract idea is determined by the idea's effects on one who believes it. James wrote that a true idea is one that can be verified, that ‘works,’ and that satisfies. According to this concept, truth is changeable. Because a true idea is one that agrees with reality, James concluded that we can make ideas true by our actions and change the world in which we live.” While I’m not sure that Emerson, who seems more Platonic than this, would subscribe to this concept of a “true” idea, Pragmatism certainly seems to describe what he has in mind when he talks about the necessity of the scholar being actively involved in life.

Disregarding, for the moment, that truism that “there’s no fool like an old fool,” hopefully it goes without saying that for most people the longer they live the wiser they become. By encountering problems the scholar extends his understanding of life. Problems generate wisdom and the ability to articulate these problems successfully:

So much only of life as I know by experience, so much of the wilderness have I vanquished and planted, or so far have I extended my being, my dominion. I do not see how any man can afford, for the sake of his nerves and his nap, to spare any action in which he can partake. It is pearls and rubies to his discourse. Drudgery, calamity, exasperation, want, are instructers in eloquence and wisdom. The true scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power.

While I’m into preserving wilderness, not vanquishing and planting it, it’s hard not to agree that adversity can make a man wiser. Milton says in Areopagitica, “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue.” It seems equally hard to praise an idea that has not been tested in the real world.

To get the most out of our wisdom we must also apply it:

Of course, he who has put forth his total strength in fit actions, has the richest return of wisdom.

It’s certainly not enough to simply have an idea. We must live by our ideas and promote them if they are to have any real worth. Of what value is “freedom” if we choose to live like slaves or are forced to submit to other’s whims? It’s only when such an idea is put to the test, when, for instance, we allow those we disagree with to express their ideas publicly that we can test the worth of such a concept. When we can actually see that the best ideas emerge from the free exchange of ideas, then we see the true worth of freedom, and not until.

Emerson argues that thinking and acting interact with each other, reinforcing each other:

The mind now thinks; now acts; and each fit reproduces the other. When the artist has exhausted his materials, when the fancy no longer paints, when thoughts are no longer apprehended, and books are a weariness, -- he has always the resource to live. Character is higher than intellect. Thinking is the function. Living is the functionary.

Practicing our ideas produces character, and who would argue that character is not higher than intellect? If we live a book, then that book is part of us long after we have read it.

Of course, the scholar is to do more than just apply his ideas himself

The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances.

At times this “scholar” seems more like a minister than what we generally call a “scholar:”

He is one, who raises himself from private considerations, and breathes and lives on public and illustrious thoughts. He is the world's eye. He is the world's heart. He is to resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism, by preserving and communicating heroic sentiments, noble biographies, melodious verse, and the conclusions of history.

Personally, I would hope that the true scholar would also be to point out dangerous trends in society, not just communicate “heroic sentiments” or “melodious verse.”

Ironically, since he puts so much emphasis on working with others, Emerson argues that the scholar must trust his own insights and, most of all, be true to himself:

In silence, in steadiness, in severe abstraction, let him hold by himself; add observation to observation, patient of neglect, patient of reproach; and bide his own time, -- happy enough, if he can satisfy himself alone, that this day he has seen something truly. Success treads on every right step. For the instinct is sure, that prompts him to tell his brother what he thinks. He then learns, that in going down into the secrets of his own mind, he has descended into the secrets of all minds.

Emerson feels that when the scholar explores himself, when he searches the depths of his soul he also explores all men, for, at the deepest level all people share the Oversoul.

Finding himself at the beginning of a literary movement that had shifted focus from tragedy focused on a noble hero to a celebration of the common man, Emerson sees hope in this new movement:

One of these signs is the fact, that the same movement which effected the elevation of what was called the lowest class in the state, assumed in literature a very marked and as benign an aspect. Instead of the sublime and beautiful; the near, the low, the common, was explored and poetized.

To me, this emphasizes Emerson’s attempts to balance individualism with democracy. Of course, if you really believe in an Oversoul and the sacredness of the individual, there is bound to be a shift in literature.

Part of this emphasis on the individual are reflected in America’s political movement:

Another sign of our times, also marked by an analogous political movement, is, the new importance given to the single person. Every thing that tends to insulate the individual, -- to surround him with barriers of natural respect, so that each man shall feel the world is his, and man shall treat with man as a sovereign state with a sovereign state; -- tends to true union as well as greatness.

Of course this political movement is little more than a reaffirmation of the Bill of Rights, but it also ties in neatly with the transcendentalist’s emphasis on individuality.

Emerson feels that the job of celebrating the common man lies with the American scholar:

…this confidence in the unsearched might of man belongs, by all motives, by all prophecy, by all preparation, to the American Scholar

Little wonder that Emerson celebrated Whitman as the American Scholar with the publication of Song of Myself, for Whitman brilliantly celebrated both himself and the common man.

Most of all the American Scholar, though, will find himself through Nature:

He shall see, that nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part. One is seal, and one is print. Its beauty is the beauty of his own mind. Its laws are the laws of his own mind. Nature then becomes to him the measure of his attainments. So much of nature as he is ignorant of, so much of his own mind does he not yet possess. And, in fine, the ancient precept, "Know thyself," and the modern precept, "Study nature," become at last one maxim.

Emerson’s greatest disciple, Thoreau, of course went on to do this better than anyone in American history, discovering himself in his hermitage on Walden Pond.

If Emerson isn't himself America's greatest scholar, he certainly inspired someone who became America's greatest scholar.

3 thoughts on “The American Scholar, Part II

  1. Your readers might be very interested in the influence that William James, the new thought writers such as the Fillmores and Fox, as well as the earlier people like Trine, and Drummond had on the Bill Wilson recovery program embodied in A.A.’s Big Book.
    A.A. had six major spiritual roots – the Bible, Quiet Time, Anne Smith’s Journal, the teachings of Rev. Sam Shoemaker, the life-changing program of the Oxford Group, and the extensive religious literature early AAs read. From this last source came some substantial “new thought” ideas that have carried into today ‘s A.A.

  2. “Brownson is by far America’s greatest intellect”
    The aforementioned is a quote by John Henry Newman, a leading intellectual in the English Oxford Movement. Orestes Brownson was a contemporary of Emerson, and even Emerson admitted that Brownson had a truly extraordinary mind. I urge to check out the Brownson Site.
    Bryan Shepherd, Orestes Brownson Society

What do you think?