In “The American Scholar,” Emerson emphasizes the particular role that nature has in a scholar’s development. Emerson believed that man was one with nature, and that by studying nature man could learn more about himself and all of mankind. America—as a new and vast country that was still being explored—offered ample opportunities for scholars to study and experience nature in a way that Europeans from smaller and more heavily-developed countries could not. By exploring and observing the “savage nature” that still existed in America, the American scholar could help pioneer a new intellectual and literary tradition that would be distinctly American and help define the present age.
Emerson considers nature “the first in time and the first in importance of the influences” in the early development of a scholar. The scholar, according to Emerson, is naturally drawn to nature as an object of study. He writes that the “young mind” initially sees everything as “individual,” but eventually begins finding connections between seemingly different objects. The clear connections among living things in the natural landscape serve as the intellectual basis for observing these connections elsewhere. The scholar’s “unifying instinct” eventually turns inward and they find that “nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part.” In studying nature, they begin to understand more of themselves and their place in the world. Furthermore, Emerson also believed that “man, rightly viewed, comprehendeth the particular natures of all men.” This meant that if one man could truly begin to understand himself, especially through the study of nature, then he could also begin to understand those around him.
Emerson believed that “man is related to all nature.” Therefore, understanding nature was the first step to understanding mankind as a whole and not just the individual self. The “unifying instinct” that drives the scholar to find commonalities on the surface also drives them to look below the surface of the earth, where they will discover “roots running under ground whereby contrary and remote things cohere and flower out from one stem.” Because nature mirrors society, it follows that there are also unseen “roots” that bind individuals to one another despite differences in class, religion, race, sex, and culture. The scholar will recognize that he or she has the ability to use this knowledge to inspire others. However, they also likely know that they are not the first to find these connections, and that rather than regurgitating the wisdom of past scholars, it is important for them to create something original and specific to the present time and place.
When Emerson wrote this essay in the 1830s, America was still a new nation and largely unexplored and undeveloped. His hope was that a new generation of American scholars would turn to America’s landscape for inspiration to form new ideas and create a new style of art that would reflect the landscape’s untamed wildness. Emerson believed that new art and ideas did not come from libraries or colleges, but “out of unhandselled savage nature.” Furthermore, it was not a life spent in formal education that gave birth to the most influential ideas and literature, but that “out of terrible Druids and Berserkers come at last Alfred and Shakespeare.” Emerson also believed that the extent of a scholar’s understanding of nature reflected the extent of their understanding of their own mind. This would imply that because so much of America’s nature was still unexplored and therefore not understood, so, too, were the unique minds of the American people. America’s newly won independence and anxiety to create a respectable national identity, it’s vast expanses of unexplored land, and its relative isolation from European countries all contribute to Emerson’s assertion that the time was ripe for an artistic revolution, “if we but know what to do with it.”
To Emerson, nature is inextricably connected to humanity and is therefore the greatest influence upon the development of the scholar. By studying nature, Emerson believes, the scholar can develop all the tools they needed to study humanity and create literature and art that can uplift and inspire people from all walks of life. Furthermore, America’s unique landscape, if viewed and studied properly, could inspire a new generation of artists whose words and ideas would define what it was to be an American in the early 19th century.
Nature and Connection ThemeTracker
Nature and Connection Quotes in The American Scholar
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.