Emerson begins by noting that the beginning of another school year is an occasion of “hope, and, perhaps, not enough of labor.” Emerson goes on to explain that, unlike in European countries, this lecture is not to celebrate scientific or physical achievements, but is simply “a friendly sign of the survival of the love of letters” in an otherwise indifferent society.
Emerson delivers this speech at Harvard in 1837. He immediately calls attention to the lack of real academic or physical achievements to celebrate, which is meant to grab the attention of the audience. However, Emerson turns it around by praising them for their continued “love of letters,” which is the first indication that Emerson believes that one day they will come together to celebrate some kind of shared literary achievement.
Emerson expresses his opinion that the “sluggard intellect” of America is on the cusp of waking up and producing “something better than the exertions of mechanical skill.” He argues that America’s “day of dependence” on the intellectual accomplishments of other countries is nearly over. Emerson believes that “poetry will revive and lead in a new age in America,” thanks to the American Scholar.
Emerson continues to challenge the pride of his audience by referring to America’s “sluggard intellect.” This incites his audience to prove him wrong, possibly by producing the kind of literature he believes will help kickstart a “new age in America.” He also refers to America’s continued “dependence” as a way to motivate his audience to listen to what he has to say so they will know how to really set the country apart as its own independent nation.
Emerson summarizes an “old fable” about how the gods “divided Man into men, that he might be more helpful to himself.” He states that this means there is a common, uniting spirit present in all individual men and women. According to Emerson, this also means that “you must take the whole society to find the whole man.”
One of the most important points Emerson wants to convey is that is that individual men and women are all united by metaphysical ties, each contributing something that benefits the whole of society. Therefore, the scholar that achieves something truly meaningful through literature is not just earning respect for themselves, but is actually winning respect for, and benefitting, the entire country.
Emerson further explains that Man has the capacity to fulfill all the necessary roles in society, but because Man was divided, all those jobs were “parceled out to individuals.” According to Emerson, individuals should be able to “embrace all the other laborers,” but society has become so divided that the individual parts no longer come together as they ought.
Emerson explains how society has become so divided: individuals stick to those who have similar functions in society. This means they isolate themselves from other groups (or social classes) and they lose sight of all that unites them to one another. Instead, he advocates that individuals should be open to a variety of skills and occupations to make for a more well-rounded, harmonious society in which everyone’s role is appreciated.
Because there is so much division, individual people have difficulty understanding the importance of their work in relation to other people from different social classes. Emerson argues that individuals essentially become the things they work with rather than develop into complete human beings.
According to Emerson, when a person does not understand the true value of their function in society, they are never able to live up to their full potential. Because the individual parts of society are not achieving their full potential, the whole society is not functioning as well as it could if it was more united.
The scholar, according to Emerson, is society’s “delegated intellect.” If the American Scholar has achieved the “right state” then they become Man Thinking. If they have not achieved that state, then they become “a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.”
“Man Thinking” is the ideal that Emerson argues all scholars should strive to embody. As Man Thinking, they actively seek truth, develop their own ideas, and share those with other people in their society. Furthermore, they understand that what they do is for the good of all because of the deep connection between all individuals in society.
Emerson tells his audience that he is going to explore the “main influences” on the development of the scholar, the first of which is nature. To the scholar, Emerson argues, nothing is as interesting as nature—including human nature—and in observing the natural world around them, the scholar soon realizes that its circular continuity “resembles his own spirit.”
Not only are all individual men and women in society connected to one another, but they also have a deep connection with nature. In America, at the time Emerson was delivering this speech, much of the natural landscape of the country had not been explored and was therefore widely misunderstood. Likewise, Emerson believes the true spirit of all Americans is largely unexplored and misunderstood.
To make sense of nature, the scholar begins classifying what they see. Emerson asserts that the “young mind” thinks “every thing is individual, stands by itself.” However, Emerson states that classifying nature inevitably leads to finding connections between individual and then larger groups of things. He believes that the act of classifying indicates that one has perceived natural things are not “chaotic,” but actually adhere to “a law which is also the law of the human mind,” which can also be applied to all sciences.
A “young mind” might refer to a child’s mind, but it also refers to an inexperienced mind, one which is just beginning to think for itself. It focuses on the obvious: differences. As it matures, however, Emerson believes that observing the interconnectedness of nature is how people begin to explore beneath the surface and discover the connections between seemingly unconnected things. Furthermore, all of these things perform individual functions that benefits the whole, hearkening back to Emerson’s assertion that all members of a society play an important role in its functioning.
While the scholar is still a “schoolboy,” Emerson states that they will realize that they come from the same “root” as the natural world around them, and that “nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part.” This observation will lead to the development of that “ever expanding knowledge” that belongs to “a becoming creator.” Eventually, for the scholar, the phrases “know thyself” and “study nature” will become synonymous.
Emerson believes that the mind of a scholar will quickly make the connection between the individual and nature, and that studying nature will help them understand themselves starting from when they are a child. This is when they begin to develop not just as a “scholar,” but as a “creator” who will be capable of making art and literature that reflects the discoveries about themselves and all of humanity they found through observing nature. In the context of Emerson’s call for a unique body of American art and literature, this means that studying nature and recognizing the world’s underlying connections is the key to scholars becoming competent writers and thinkers.
The second major influence over the development of the scholar is the “mind of the Past,” specifically in the form of books. Books, according to Emerson, allowed past scholars to share their perceptions of the world around them in the form of “immortal thoughts” that, depending on “the depth of mind from which it issued,” can influence future scholars for many generations to come.
Emerson believes that only great minds can create great and meaningful books. Their ideas remain relevant through the generations because they speak to truths that people from all levels of society can understand and relate to, highlighting Emerson’s emphasis on the importance of recognizing the common threads that connect all people. Books help introduce scholars to ideas and thoughts that continue to guide the society they live in, which can be invaluable to the scholar when they begin working on their own books that will contribute to America’s literary canon.
Although books are an importance influence, Emerson also states that “none is quite perfect” because nobody can completely prevent “the conventional, the local, the perishable” from finding its way into them. Because of this, Emerson argues that each generation “must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding.”
Each individual is a product of their time and are liable to entertain some of the same biases and quirks unique to the time and place in which they exist. Because of this, Emerson acknowledges that not all books will be relevant in all ages or places even though he believes everyone is universally connected. This shows that, although Emerson believes in the unity of all people, he also places high value on the individual. Each generation must create something new to continue to pass down its unique ideas and beliefs.
However, Emerson also warns that “hence arises a grave mischief” as people place more importance on the book than on the person who produced that book, “as love of the hero corrupts into worship of his statue.” Instead of creating new and original works, Emerson argues that more books will be written about the original book “by thinkers, not by Man Thinking.” Furthermore, young scholars will spend all of their time in libraries studying the original books and forget that they are capable of writing equally important ones.
Books, as Emerson knows, are liable to over-influence their readers. This can be particularly dangerous for developing scholars who have been taught to accept the writings and beliefs of a select few. Instead of creating books for the next generation, those who rely too heavily on past minds stifle their individuality, thus limiting themselves to writing about ideas that are not as applicable in the current age as when they were originally written.
Emerson also warns that, “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst.” He writes that he would rather never read a book than “be warped by its attraction... and made a satellite instead of a system.” This, he says, is because the most important thing is an “active soul,” and focusing too much on books means one is looking to the past instead of creating something new for the future.
A scholar must learn how to read books “well” if they want to protect themselves against becoming a “satellite” and simply following an idea just because it is the product of a great mind from the past. They do this by cultivating an “active soul” and teaching themselves to think critically and independently so they can create something new for the society they live in. By doing so, the American scholar can help define the country’s unique identity through their work, rather than merely echoing the long-standing European tradition.
In order to read books without abusing them, Emerson prescribes “periods of solitude, inquest, and self-recovery” while reading. Furthermore, he says that books should be reserved for the scholar’s “idle times” when they are finding it difficult to work. In those cases, Emerson believes that books can help inspire new and original ideas that the scholar can then use to write their own literature.
It is important for individual scholars to turn inwards and try to discover their own unique thoughts on different topics, and “periods of solitude” allow them to do this away from outside influences that might make it more difficult for the scholar to understand their own mind. This, again, shows that Emerson values individual minds apart from the connections among them. Additionally, though, Emerson encourages engaging with the ideas of other writers since reading other people’s work can help a scholar who is struggling with their work find a more coherent way to share their thoughts.
Emerson describes the pleasure the reader gets from reading a book and finding that the author has written down something that the which reader strongly relates or has thought of before. Emerson writes that this feeling further proves that there is “some preestablished harmony” between all people, no matter when or where they live.
Emerson emphasizes that the unity between individual men and women—and human beings and nature—transcends time, as shown by humanity’s continued connection with literature from the past. Emerson believes there are thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that remain fundamentally unchanged, and discovering these in books that were published long ago increases a person’s awareness of the connection they have with everyone else around them, and, perhaps more importantly, their potential to influence future generations.
Emerson also admits that books are important because they can feed the human mind. He notes that there have been “great and heroic men” who only had books to learn from, but, even then, a good reader must be capable of forming original ideas of their own and will only embrace “the authentic utterances of the oracles” instead of superfluous details and ideas.
Emerson has already warned the scholar against losing their individual perspectives by relying too heavily on books, but now he emphasizes the additional importance of not getting hung up on superficial details or authorial biases. Instead, the scholar must use their judgment and feelings to identify what parts of a book are “authentic” and reflect truths about the human experience. These “authentic” passages, according to Emerson, should inspire the scholar and help them further develop their own original ideas.
Furthermore, there are some subjects that one can only learn about through books, namely history and “exact science.” Colleges can also use books to “teach elements” that will encourage scholars to create their works. That, according to Emerson, is the college’s primary duty.
Although Emerson warned of the dangers of formal education—namely, that many students are not taught to think critically and independently—he reaffirms to his audience that this type of schooling is also necessary for factual information. A responsible college is one that teaches students “elements” (facts) that will give them the language and inspiration to make something new instead of simply telling students how to think.
The final major influence over the scholar that Emerson discusses is action. He mourns the fact that scholars—and particularly clergy—are looked down upon by “practical men” who think “speculative men” aren’t good for anything. Emerson, however, believes that action is an essential component of a scholar’s development because it helps them learn how to create something that can benefit many different people.
“Practical men” are those who work for tangible results, but “speculative men” deal in ideas, which cannot be touched and which are not always immediately useful. However, Emerson advises his audience full of “speculative men” to work side by side with “practical men” in order to observe and understand them better. Emerson believes that there are deep connections between all human beings, but the key to discovering these connections is by going out of what might be the scholar’s comfort zone to engage in “practical” work (like farming or engineering). This not only provides the scholar with new experiences to think about, but it helps them better understand the needs and perspectives of their fellow American men and women.
Emerson believes that one can judge how much life experience a scholar has by how they talk. By taking an active part in society, the scholar will be introduced to experiences and emotions that will help them develop “eloquence and wisdom.” According to Emerson, “experience is converted into thought” in a process that is continuously taking place within a scholar.
Emerson believes that a scholar who has spent all their life in a library studying old books and writing about them will not speak with the same kind of emotional intelligence that one who has experienced real life will. This ties in with Emerson’s earlier observation about “meek young men” who limit their studies to a college library. By solely reading the works of others, a scholar risks losing their individuality to the ideas of past thinkers. However, when a scholar goes out into the world and takes an active role in society, they expose themselves to new and unique experiences that provide them with ample opportunity to make observations that lead to new thoughts that might inspire their next work.
As important as action is, Emerson also states that it will be difficult to truly think about it until it is in the past. This is because the scholar will be too immersed in the present to think about it with the same calm with which they think about the experiences of their childhood. Over time, however, the scholar will be able to look back on their experiences and be inspired by them to create something new.
Emerson believes that for a scholar to be successful, they have to understand that they cannot be very objective about an experience while it is happening. Objectivity, to the scholar, means honest exploration of their experiences and the thoughts they inspire without allowing emotion to obscure the truth too heavily. Time allows a person to look back with far more objectivity than they have in the moment, allowing them the benefit of hindsight and perhaps a better understanding of themselves and what these experiences meant to them.
Not only must the scholar take action, according to Emerson, but they must put as much of themselves into everything they do that they can. They must also seek a variety of different actions to “replenish their merchantable stock” so they do not run out of material to create new ideas with.
“Merchantable stock” to the scholar are feelings, experiences, and the thoughts these things inspire. They are unique to the scholar, but will still contain truths that speak to readers from every part of society. However, to find something meaningful in an experience, the scholar has to make themselves open to it and not allow any of their preconceived notions or biases limit their openness to the new perspectives and ideas they will inevitably encounter.
Additionally, varied experiences introduce the scholar to new vocabularies. Emerson states that “frank intercourse” with a variety of different people from different backgrounds will introduce the scholar to different forms of language that they can use to describe their particular experiences. Furthermore, Emerson argues that both books and colleges “only copy the language which the field and the work-yard made.”
One of the aims of the scholar is to reach as many people as possible, so it is important for them to be able to write in a language that is easy for individuals from every social class and region to understand. As Emerson aptly points out, language has a way of working its way up from the bottom, and the slang of the “field and the work-yard” often becomes so popular in all different social classes and environments that it eventually finds its way into the respectable academic books found in college libraries. Therefore, going out and learning the language used in contemporary “field[s] and […] work-yard[s]” actually makes the scholar more relatable to both their immediate audience and to future college students who will be encountering this language in their classrooms.
The “final value” of action, Emerson writes, is that it can cause thought. Emerson compares this to cycles in nature, such as the “ebb and flow of the sea; in day and night; in heat and cold.” When the scholar finds that they are having difficulty reading books or formulating thoughts to write about, then they should turn to “the elemental force of living them.”
The scholar’s work is to observe and write about the human experience, but, as Emerson argued earlier, they begin this work by studying nature, and the laws of nature reflect the laws of the human mind and spirit. The scholar’s mind, according to Emerson, naturally gravitates towards observations of human behavior, which they can only really make by taking an active role in society. However, the scholar becomes isolated from activity while they read and write, and Emerson urges them to return to action when this isolation hinders their work. In this, the life of a successful scholar is similar to the “ebb and flow of the sea.” The scholar should, in Emerson’s opinion, recede into themselves while they work, and then routinely returning to society and communal action for more “merchantable stock.” By focusing on their intellectual development as an individual, then, the scholar can more effectively connect with
Emerson goes on to state that it is “unhandselled savage nature” that creates new ideas and cultures, not formal education. Primitive work, according to Emerson is beneficial to all citizens, but he also maintains that individuals should not give up their true opinions and thoughts just for the sake of new experiences.
The less an individual is restrained by social etiquette, according to Emerson, the more natural their thoughts and behaviors will be. Through primitive work like farming, the scholar can reconnect with their own “unhandselled savage nature” because it involves working directly with nature in a way that doesn’t require social etiquette. Thus, it allows the scholar—and those the scholar may be working alongside—to behave and think more naturally themselves.
Emerson moves on to the duties of scholars, explaining that they “are such as become Man Thinking.” The primary duty of the scholar, he states, is to “cheer, to raise, and to guide” those around them. However, he also writes that the scholar will not get the same kind of immediate fame as astronomers enjoy because studying human behavior and ideas takes more time. Additionally, the scholar might even be looked down upon by others in society for not being up to date about the “popular arts.” As a result, while they create their original works, the scholar may have to accept “poverty and solitude.”
Once again, Emerson emphasizes that much of society prefers the “practical man” whose career yields immediate results that one can use for themselves over the “speculative man” who deals with intangible ideas and emotions. Emerson further warns that, because of the scholar’s possible unpopularity in much of society, they may never achieve fame or even recognition in their lifetime.
Instead of enjoying all the benefits of society, Emerson says that the scholar will find comfort in the knowledge that they are “exercising the highest functions of human nature.” Their job is ultimately altruistic, providing society with works of literature full of “heroic sentiments” and any “new verdict of Reason” that they have discovered.
According to Emerson’s concept of unity in society, not only does the work of one individual help the entire society, but the abilities of one individual reflects the abilities of all. Therefore, the scholar’s accomplishments and abilities reflect all that humanity is capable of. Furthermore, the products of the scholar’s intellectual labors will pave the way for future scholars because, as Emerson stated before, books are written for the benefit of the next generation.
Because their job is so important, Emerson advises the scholar to “feel all confidence” in themselves as one of the few who really understand the world. He urges the scholar not to let themselves be distracted by temporary things, no matter how important they may seem to society (“some fetish of a government, some ephemeral trade”), but focus on fundamental truths. The scholar will feel satisfied at the end of the day if they have “seen something truly.”
This passage echoes Emerson’s past warnings about the isolation due to a lack of interest in the “popular arts” that scholars typically experience. This isolation, however, helps the scholar maintain independence of thought, which in turn enables them to see “something truly,” such as the underlying truths about humanity the “popular arts” or current social movements actually reflect. This point, then, shows that Emerson does not believe that individual thought and unity among people are mutually exclusive.
Emerson also prescribes introspection for the scholar, arguing that getting to know oneself is important in getting to understand mankind. He illustrates his point by saying that there are poets who record their “spontaneous thoughts” and then later find that they have actually “recorded that which men in crowded cities find true for them, also.” Emerson also explains that many will feel insecure about their thoughts (especially their private, personal ones), but will ultimately discover that they are “the complement of his hearers.”
Thoughts that are “spontaneous” reflect the true nature of an individual, and so, according to Emerson’s belief in the interconnectedness of humanity, these thoughts are also the ones that other men and women will find easiest to relate to and understand because they speak to the inner natures of all men and women. This reaffirms Emerson’s earlier point that many of the best ideas and cultures emerge from “savage nature” rather than from limiting oneself to studying someone else’s thoughts and works.
Self-trust is fundamental to the scholar, who should always be “free and brave.” Emerson asserts that scholars must put their fear “behind [them]” because fear is born of ignorance, and scholars are not ignorant. When the scholar does encounter something they fear, they “turn and face it,” exploring it in detail until they understand it and can move forward. In a similar way, the scholar looks beyond the world’s “pretension” and learns to separate human truths from lies.
According to Emerson, the scholar must be able to look past the superficial and transitory, both in society (its “pretension”) and within themselves (fear). Beneath each of these things, however, is the opportunity for the scholar to expand their understanding of the human mind. Furthermore, it is part of a scholar’s job to not only face and see past these things for themselves, but to help guide others through them, as well.
Emerson criticizes the notion that “the world was finished a long time ago.” The scholar recognizes that things can always be improved and learning never stops, and that “great” men are the ones who can “alter” the minds of others. Furthermore, the great scholar will carry themselves in such a way that others realize the importance of what they are doing and that all of society can benefit from their work.
Emerson’s criticisms here are similar to his past argument that each generation should be writing for the next, implying that there always is something that is not only passed down but built upon. A successful scholar will have helped their society understand that the world never was “finished” and, therefore, the scholar’s work never was, nor will be, unimportant.
Emerson believes that “man has been wronged; he has wronged himself.” According to Emerson, individual men have become too complacent, happy to become part of a “herd” and allow only one or two people to achieve real greatness. Instead of trying to better themselves and find true fulfillment, Emerson says that too many people are “content to be brushed like flies from the path of a great person.” Furthermore, instead of living their own lives and exploring their own importance, Emerson says that many people are willing to “live in” their heroes.
This echoes Emerson’s earlier assertion that humanity has become too divided, which, unfortunately, is something it has done to itself. Individual men and women have convinced themselves that they have a particular place in society and that they have no choice but to limit themselves to that role. They have become content to “live in” their heroes because that is all they think they can do. Emerson believes that the scholar can help their audience realize that everyone has the ability to achieve greatness regardless of their place in the prevailing social hierarchy.
Emerson notes that it is natural for people to focus on earning money or power because they believe it is the highest possible achievement. However, Emerson says that these things are a “false good” and that it will be the “gradual domestication of the idea of Culture” that creates a revolution in America. To this end, the scholar will find that understanding human nature is more valuable than “any kingdom in history.”
The “domestication of the idea of Culture” means that art and literature will primarily focus on domestic issues, which are more relatable and have the greater capacity to convey truth than improbable romances or lofty poetry written in language only the highly educated can understand. According to Emerson, money and power are secondary to the ability to understand one another. Through understanding, the scholar can achieve something far more lasting and beneficial: uniting a divided society.
Emerson claims that society has “quite exhausted” the books that were once great, so there is a need for something new. No single man or idea can “feed us ever,” writes Emerson, because the “human mind” is like a “central fire” or light that “beams out of a thousand stars.” It cannot be limited, and it is the scholar who has to keep it alive in different times and places.
The old ideas found in the books scholars typically read no longer yield the same amount of inspiration because they have been used too heavily. They need to be built upon, adapted, or even refuted by each and every generation if the cycle of learning, understanding, and creating is going to continue. Emerson is saying, then, that only those scholars who are capable of critical thought and maintaining intellectual independence will be able to keep the “central fire” alive from one generation to the next.
Emerson says that time has been divided by the ideas which dominated them, namely the Classic, Romantic, and (the current) Reflective ages. He argues, however, that according to his ideas of “oneness” in mankind, that individual people pass through all three in their lifetime.
According to Emerson, humanity’s primitive explorations of human thought and emotions found in Classical literature gave way to the understanding of humanity’s oneness with nature found in Romantic literature, which, Emerson argues, has given way to the introspection found in the current Reflective age. The individual’s understanding of human nature develops in the same pattern, starting with childhood (Classic) and ending with adulthood (Reflective). This demonstrates the cyclical nature of knowledge, both on a societal and a personal level, and reinforces Emerson’s emphasis on passing down wisdom to the next generation
In reply to those who “bewailed” the times as “the age of Introversion,” Emerson asks why that should be considered a negative thing. If society is tormented by its desire to know and understand everything, Emerson states that it is because they “find themselves not in the state of mind of their fathers” and therefore lack guidance. Emerson welcomes this as a sign that American society is ready for a revolution.
Emerson is once again emphasizing his belief in the inevitability of an American artistic revolution. After the Revolutionary War, American society had been been successful in establishing a working government and even making meaningful contributions to the world’s understanding of science and the natural world. However, Americans lacked a literary voice that could define what it was to be American and help American society find its footing to move forward.
In fact, Emerson recognizes signs that revolution has already begun and is optimistic about what they portend. Specifically, Emerson welcomes the literary movement that embraces “the near, the low, the common,” as those subjects have been neglected for too long. His opinion is that the literature that illustrates the day-to-day lives of different classes of people will help provide insight into “antique and future worlds.” Furthermore, this type of literature calls to attention the “sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause” that animates all of mankind.
America was founded upon the idea that all men and women were created equal, and none were inherently better than the rest. Literature that focuses solely on the few who live with immense wealth and privilege does not accurately speak to the human experience because it excludes so much of humanity. Emerson applauds literature that appeals to “the near, the low, the common” because it speaks the most truth to the most people, which will do more to unite the nation than literature about “the remote” rich.
Emerson says that the ideas inspired by everyday life and people are what gave genius to Goldsmith, Burns, and Cowper in a past age and currently inspires poets like Goethe, Wordsworth, and Carlyle. It is through reading the works of these men that scholars and average readers learn that “things near are not less beautiful and wondrous than things remote” and, more importantly, that understanding these seemingly mundane topics can help one understand those that seem more glamorous and “remote.”
Emerson further emphasizes the importance of literature which portrays “things near” rather than “things remote” because it has the greater capacity to unify. The “genius” of the writers Emerson lists is that they famously used the language of the middle and lower classes rather than that which could only truly be understood by the educated upper classes. They created poetry and books that were easier for all members of society to relate to and understand, and by following their example the American scholar could produce literature that would help unify their American audience.
Emerson singles out Emanuel Swedenborg as one who had been widely underappreciated in his own time. Emerson claims that Swedenborg had “done much for this philosophy,” particularly in drawing a connection between nature and “the affections of the soul.”
Swedenborg, like Emerson, believed that there was an actual relationship between human beings, nature, and the divine. This oneness meant studying natural sciences could help humanity better understand itself and promote spiritual growth.
Emerson writes that another sign of impending revolution is the “new importance given to the single person.” He believes that a society in which individual members know they are worthy of respect and can govern themselves is greater and more united than a society divided by class. The scholar’s place in all this, according to Emerson, is to be a “university of knowledges” and help society understand that the “world is nothing, the man is all.”
Earlier in the speech, Emerson acknowledges that people tend to work for power or money because these things help them move up the social ladder. While the desire for the comforts of wealth and the respect that comes with power are natural, Emerson believes the American scholar will help society realize that working for the advancement of society is more important than working for the “world” (i.e. reputation, money, or social standing).
Emerson specifically believes that it is the American Scholar who will bring about a revolution that unites the country. He asserts that the country has “listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe” and that the result is the rest of the world sees Americans as “timid, imitative, tame.”
Emerson returns to some of the sentiments he shared in the first paragraphs of his speech. By listening too much to Europe’s “courtly muses,” the American Scholar had been complicit in holding America back from achieving true cultural independence. America had achieved something great by winning political independence from England, but without cultural independence, the country would never earn the respect of other world powers.
Furthermore, the “mind” of America “eats upon itself” because it believes it can only “aim at low objects.” Emerson mourns that there are young Americans who dream of making big changes, but get discouraged and feel “hindered from action by the disgust which the principles on which business is managed inspire.” To fix the situation, Emerson reminds his audience that all it takes is one person to stick by their principles for others to begin following suit.
Emerson believes that American society has placed too much importance on industrialization and innovation, and not enough on intellectual development. This reflects Emerson’s earlier comment that the “practical” people of the world look down on the “speculative” ones for seemingly not contributing to society. America’s “mind” is essentially atrophying because it has grown complacent and is willing to accept the ideas and traditions of other nations rather than challenging itself to aim higher and create something new and unique. However, should one scholar make a breakthrough, them others would surely follow.
Emerson also criticizes the notion that all people should be judged “in the gross, in the hundred, or the thousand” instead of as a whole “unit.” Instead of their opinions being “predicted geographically, as the north, or the south,” Emerson asserts that Americans will soon “walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands” and the “study of letters” will no longer be scorned because it will produce ideas that unite Americans. Because of this, “A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.”
As a new country, Emerson believed that America had the potential to become the first truly united nation. The European countries that so many Americans had chosen to leave were characterized by strong and insurmountable social divisions, primarily through their adherence to the concepts of nobility and primogeniture that prevented members of the lower classes from advancing to the upper. Emerson believes that it won’t be through scientific discovery or new inventions that America achieves greatness, but through literature and art. The American Scholar will bridge social divisions by proving that no human being is inherently superior to another just because they were born into a “noble” family, but that all human beings are made equal by a “Divine Soul” that is common to all.