The American Scholar


Ralph Waldo Emerson

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The American Scholar can help.
Themes and Colors
Social Unity Theme Icon
Nature and Connection Theme Icon
Creation and National Identity Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The American Scholar, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Social Unity Theme Icon

In his essay “The American Scholar,” Emerson urges his audience to remember that they are important parts of a larger whole and that, as scholars, they have a specific function in society: to facilitate unity. He asserts that all people, no matter their education or social standing, play equally important roles in creating and maintaining a successful society. As it is, however, Emerson says that society has become so divided that individuals have lost pride in the work they do and do not recognize that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Emerson therefore argues that it is among the chief duties of the American scholar to find and share the connections and universal truths that will help unite mankind and inspire future generations.

Although individuals are, in Emerson’s opinion, inextricably bound to one another by metaphysical ties, he also contends that “the state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk.” Instead of feeling united and valued, individuals within the larger society feel isolated from one another. Emerson believes that social and economic barriers prevent individual men and women from understanding the “true dignity” of their role in society. This means they begin to work solely for their own benefit, and not for society as a whole. To help bridge this divide, Emerson encourages his audience to engage in all types of work, saying, “There is virtue yet in the hoe and the spade for learned as well as unlearned men.” That “virtue” is that they will develop a better understanding of their fellow men by working alongside them. Emerson believes that men should not be classified and separated from one another based on their individual roles: “Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all.” This highlights his conviction that there is an undercurrent of unity that binds all of humankind—no matter how outwardly different—together. 

Emerson adheres to “the doctrine that man is one,” and posits that by developing an understanding of a range of individuals and of the self, the scholar can discover universal truths that are applicable and beneficial to all people. Emerson argues that “you must take the whole society to find the whole man.” This means that to find universal truths that will benefit all, scholars must not limit their social experiences and observations to one group, but seek “frank intercourse with many men and women.” While interactions with a wide variety of other people is essential, it is also important that scholars explore their own thoughts and feelings because, as Emerson argues, the scholar will learn “that in going down to the secrets of his own mind he has descended into the secrets of all minds.” As the “delegated intellect” of mankind, the scholar must devote their life to discovering and sharing these “secrets” of themselves and others in the hope that it will help reestablish a sense of unity among individuals.

Beyond introspection and having forming relationships with other people, Emerson also advocates that scholars should play an active role in unifying American culture. “The office of the scholar,” says Emerson, “is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances.” That is to say that the scholar must look beyond the surface divisions of society and formulate ideas and observations that will help other people do the same. Emerson writes, “The world is his who can see through its pretension,” meaning that a good scholar is one who can look beyond the societal mores that were designed to divide people and recognize the common elements that unify all human beings. He praises the literature that focuses on “the near, the low, the common” over that which only deals with “the great, the remote, the romantic” because it portrays a segment of society that had largely been neglected, thus helping members of the upper classes realize they have something in common with those of lower status. Emerson believes that scholars in the United States will break free of antiquated European literary and artistic traditions to create something distinctly American that will help unify the nation and create a new sense of national pride.

One of Emerson’s most passionate beliefs was in the interconnectedness of mankind, and he mourned the fact that society had devolved and divided itself to such a point that individuals no longer recognized the importance of the role they played in society. America, as far as Emerson was concerned, had arrived at a crisis and it was time for it to pull away from the social customs and traditions that dominated Europe and create something new that would reestablish a sense of oneness and belonging for Americans from every walk of life. In Emerson’s view, it was the unique role of the scholar, society’s “delegated intellect,” to accomplish this goal and cement America’s place in the world as its own distinct nation worthy of respect and admiration.

Related Themes from Other Texts
Compare and contrast themes from other texts to this theme…

Social Unity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Social Unity appears in each chapter of The American Scholar. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
chapter length:
Get the entire The American Scholar LitChart as a printable PDF.
The American Scholar PDF

Social Unity Quotes in The American Scholar

Below you will find the important quotes in The American Scholar related to the theme of Social Unity.
The American Scholar Quotes

The old fable covers a doctrine ever new and sublime; that there is One Man—present to all particular men only partially, or through one faculty; and that you must take the whole society to find the whole man. Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), The American Scholar
Page Number: 150
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), The American Scholar
Page Number: 151-152
Explanation and Analysis:

Life is our dictionary. Years are well spent in country labors; in town; in the insight into trades and manufactures; in frank intercourse with man men and women; in science; in art; to the one end of mastering in all their facts a language by which to illustrate and embody our perceptions.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), The American Scholar
Page Number: 156
Explanation and Analysis:

He then learns that in going down into the secrets of his own mind he has descended into the secrets of all minds. He learns that he who has mastered any law in his private thoughts, is master to that extent of all men whose language he speaks, and of all into whose language his own can be translated.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), The American Scholar
Page Number: 158-159
Explanation and Analysis:

It is a sign—is it not?—of new vigor when the extremities are made active, when currents of warm life run into the hands and the feet. I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic: what is doing is Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provencal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into today, and you may have the antique and future worlds.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker)
Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis:

We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds. The study of letters shall be no longer a name for pity, for doubt, and for sensual indulgence. The dread of man and the love of man shall be a wall of defense and a wreath of joy around all. A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), The American Scholar
Page Number: 164
Explanation and Analysis: