The American Scholar by Ralph Waldo Emerson: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:02 Synopsis of The…
  • 1:19 Influences on the Mind
  • 2:42 The Scholar's Duties
  • 3:27 Analysis and Transcendentalism
  • 4:56 Emerson and Slavery in America
  • 6:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Do you ever wonder if we've run out of new ideas? Well, don't be so sure until you read this lesson with a synopsis and analysis of 'The American Scholar' by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the quintessential American scholar himself.

Go Your Own Way: A Brief Synopsis of Emerson's 'The American Scholar'

Have you ever wished that you could just do things how ever you wanted without having to worry about laws, rules, or other social pressures? Sounds pretty nice in theory, but whether we like it or not, there will always be external consequences for our actions. Nevertheless, renowned American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson thought the rewards of going your own way far outweighed the risks - a notion central to his landmark speech, ' The American Scholar'.

In this oration delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge on August 31, 1837, Emerson stressed the idea that all individuals are really just parts of 'One Man,' similar to how individual limbs make up a single body. He considered the scholar as just one of these social 'limbs;' however, he also recognized that 'The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunkā€¦'

Emerson thought the best way to reconnect all these body parts was to start understanding their crucial roles. Accordingly, he addressed his audience on the role he understood best: that of the American scholar. Of course, the function of a scholar is intellectual in nature, so Emerson had to begin his talk with an explanation of the various fundamental influences on the human mind.

Influences on the Mind: Nature, Books, and Action

Emerson saw nature as the first and most important influence on human thought. He observed that we originally classify things in nature (i.e., biologically) as separate from one another. However, after dealing with these classifications for so long, Emerson found that our minds begin to see more and more common patterns between things we used to consider different, rendering any further classification unnecessary.

Emerson also found the past to be a tremendous influencer of thought or, more specifically, the books that bring the past to us. 'Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst,' he claimed, urging that scholars should use books solely as inspiration and never as idols to be glorified and endlessly copied. He does make the distinction, though, that reading books on history and science is essential to scholarly endeavors.

The final influence on our intellectual faculties, action, is listed last for a reason, and that's because Emerson and others didn't find it nearly as important to thought. However, he did acknowledge that it is essential, focusing on the value of experiences in the life of a thinker. He even went so far as to say the greatest value of action to the mind is like that of books, and better, since actions are also a great source of inspiration and 'Thinking (itself) is a partial act.'

The Scholar's Duties

Emerson thought the office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances. However, he also thought the only way one could do this was by living a self-directed life. This requires an enormous amount of self-confidence, which Emerson warned the scholar would never have unless he began to think for himself.

For the remainder of his speech, the philosopher condemned contemporary American society as too greedy and too dependent on predominantly European thinkers to direct their own thoughts. Ultimately, Emerson believed the American scholar exists in the heart of every citizen, and that this self-possessed intellectual force could help the country transcend its shortcomings.

Transcendent Address: Analyzing 'The American Scholar' and Transcendentalism

Where we might see a single farmer - unique and separate from everyone else - Emerson saw simply Man Farming. Similarly, when he looked at the role of the scholar, he found Man Thinking. This concept of the unity of all people and things in the universe is essential to understanding most of Emerson's work, particularly 'The American Scholar.'

Speeches like this one from Emerson made him the central figure in a particular artistic and philosophical movement of the mid-19th century. The movement stressed the concept of universal unity and the value of intuitive experiences over prescribed ones (i.e., rules and rituals). It was known as Transcendentalism. One of the main points behind 'The American Scholar' was for Emerson to help his audience, primarily scholars themselves, understand the scholar's role as part of the all-inclusive human body.

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