The American Scholar by Ralph Waldo Emerson was a speech given at Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1837. It has become a vital edition to the author’s canon. The work is an exploration of Emerson’s view upon an ideal thinker. Like much of Emerson’s work, it consists of stirring prose, it is thought provoking and it peers into all sorts of aspects of the human condition.
I have been pondering just one of several main points that Emerson makes here. That is, what should the relationship be between the modern scholar and the books and the thoughts of humankind’s great intellects of the past. Emerson’s view is not all positive.
“Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given; forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books. Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm. Hence the book-learned class, who value books, as such; not as related to nature and the human constitution, but as making a sort of Third Estate with the world and soul. Hence the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees. This is bad; this is worse than it seems. Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system. The one thing in the world of value is the active soul,—the soul, free, sovereign, active. “
I think that it first bears noting what Emerson’s argument is not parallel one to the currently popular anti-intellectual, anti-reading sentiment that I often hear that disparages books and deep thinking in general. Emerson certainly respects books, knowledge and learning as “the best of things”. He is, however, highly critical as to how folks employ it.
Of course, in certain ways there is something to this point. I have known people who are too easily seduced by ideas. For instance, the person who reads a book on Buddhism and consequentially becomes a Buddhist for six months until they move on to some other philosophy, is not all that farfetched based upon my observations of certain individuals. I sense that Emerson is talking about more than this form of intellectual silliness however.
As I pointed out in my commentary on Self Reliance here, Emerson can be, and is in The American Scholar, maddeningly unspecific. Where does the line between inspiration, which he advocates, and acceptance of ideas, which he excoriates, exist? If I read an author, reject most of his or her ideas, but agree with a few of his or her ideas and consequentially embrace that small fraction of ideas, is this the “bad” that Emerson is referring to? If not, at what point do I become a dreaded ‘bookworm?” What if I modify an author’s ideas and make them my own? Emerson gives few clues as to exactly what he is talking about.
Emerson’s argument does fit very neatly into what is one of the main themes of his worldview. That is, that the individual needs to reject external sources of belief in favor of ideas that are self -formulated. Though most famously laid out in the appropriately tilted Self Reliance, this is a concept that appears over and over again in Emerson’s writings.
Later, in this speech, the consequences of a mind not forming its own ideas are laid out,
“On the other part, instead of being its [the mind] own seer, let it receive always from another mind its truth, though it were in torrents of light, without periods of solitude, inquest, and self-recovery; and a fatal disservice is done. “
I have argued before that Emerson sometimes has a great idea that he takes too far. Some of the above rhetoric, especially the blanket statement about the negative connotation of “accepting views” seems to smack of this tendency. On the other hand, though I do not always agree with him, I respect Emerson’s tenacious insistence upon an individual’s intellectual independence. Ironically, I suppose such admiration coupled with disagreement is exactly what Emerson is arguing for here.
On a side note, I must comment that bibliomaniac is one of the most fun words that I have come across in a very long time. The Oxford Dictionary defines the word as someone who has a passionate enthusiasm for collecting and possessing books. Emerson seems to be using a slightly different definition here. I think that it is safe to say that quite a lot of my friends and readers fit the Oxford definition!
With all of this said, a measured reading of this prose yields some very sensible conclusions. If we accept ideas too uncritically, we will be taken in by all sorts of questionable and contradictory beliefs and philosophies. When taken in moderation, Emerson’s exhortations would actually do many folks a lot of good. Though I often quibble with his ideas, I can generally agree with this thinker’s very famous counsel to “Trust Thyself”!
More commentary on Emerson: