Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Some Thoughts On The American Scholar by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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:


Lucy said...

I'm so glad you've written about The American Scholar. I studied it last year and surprised myself by gaining a lot from it. Emerson definitely teaches a lot about how we read (/study), why we read, and what we gain from it.

I'd definitely like to return to the text and question how I'm educating myself right now, alongside whether I'm putting my knowledge to good use in the real world. Some books don't affect me much, but others really impact my thinking and actions. Marcus Aurelius's Meditations has probably affected my wider life most, I'd say.

Your post certainly gives me a lot to ponder :)

The Bookworm said...

Interesting post about Emerson here.
I know just what you mean about those who are easily taken in by novel ideas and jump on the bandwagon for a little while with whatever it is that they are currently obsessed with, only to drop it later and move onto something else. It does sound like Emerson could have backed up his point a bit more though. I think that if the reader gains insight from reading, then it's a good thing. Reading is meant to enrich us after all.
I'm surely a bibliomaniac and a bookworm as well :)

Suko said...

Thanks for sharing your honest thoughts! When I think of Emerson, the term "self-reliance" comes to mind first, and I believe this is a powerful ideal for Americans,even though we live in a social, interdependent world. I'm not as familiar with The American Scholar, and but I think Emerson urges us to read and think critically and with freedom, and to adopt our own ideas.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lucy - Indeed it is good to question how we take in beliefs and knowledge. Though it seems that if one follows Emerson too closely one might not gain too much from books.

I really want to read Marcus Aurelius's Meditations.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - It is funny how the mention of an easily influenced person seems to bring particular people to the minds of us all.

Emerson should have really gone easier on bibliomaniacs and a bookworms!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - I agree that reading with a critical eye is an important lesson to be learned here. Yet one cannot ignore some of Emerson's statements which seem to go a bit over the top.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Very interesting review. I haven't read any Emerson so I'm glad to read your thoughts on him.

I think the difference is between being a passive reader and a critical one. Everything I read, I read eagerly, but critically.

The difference between our worldviews is that (if I'm understanding you correctly) is that you use own understanding as the paradigm to compare other people's ideas and I use the truth as revealed through God's word. Of course, God's word states that "the truth is written on the minds and hearts of all men." In which case, everyone should know when they're reading the truth or not. The question would then be why do people disagree on what is truth?

My next question is, are ideas self-formulated? But you probably don't want an essay in your comment forum.

"Bibliomania" means the same thing as "Gently Mad". I guess I could have named my blog "The Bibliomaniac."

Thanks for your great blog and have a good week!

Suko said...

Brian, perhaps he was demonstrating his own intellectual freedom? I really should read it for myself! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I really do not mind long details comments and discussions in fact I welcome them.

I would say that generally you have my worldview correct. I would also say that ideas are a combination of self formulated and what we choose to accept from others. Even the most critical thinker accepts some things from others. Emerson definitely was a believer in God and he believed that truth was also something that could be read in nature. It seems a little paradoxical to me that he urged everyone to reject ideas formulated by others yet believed that there was one basic set of truths out there.

Thanks for the good word and the thought provoking comments Sharon.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - I would love to hear what you think about this if you read it.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Always fascinated by your insights. I love all of the possibilities that you open up to me.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Petty - Thanks for the good word!

I am fascinated by books that open up possibilities.

Caroline said...

I was wondering whether he meant young scholars and not scholars in general. Those who write books without having any experience. To me it sounds as if he wants to read a book that isn't pure theory but whose author has teyted his theory. If that is the case, I'd say I do agree.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - One thing that I find about Emerson is that I, as do others want to apply a reasonable interpretation to this beliefs. However he tends to continue to make assertions that demolish the reasonable interpretation.

Anonymous said...

Emerson is a writer who is central in the American canon, but, in UK, he is, if not exactly on the fringes, not quite in the centre either. I confess to my shame that I haven't read him.

On the basis of what you say in this post, yes, there is certainly a danger of valuing books for their own sake. Those lofty monuments of the canon, which are so frequently derided these days, exist to enrich our lives: if we are so engrossed in books merely for their own sake and forget about their connection with living, then these books lose their point. All this is true. but I cannot help feeling that in these days, where our literary culture is increasingly sidelined from our lives, this is perhaps the least of our worries.

possibly, Wordsworth's verses enjoining us to leave our books and look upon life are not entirely unrelated:

Up! up! my friend, and clear your looks,
Why all this toil and trouble?
Up! up! my friend, and quit your books,
Or surely you'll grow double.

The sun above the mountain's head,
A freshening lustre mellow,
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Himadri - I often hear folks talking about how central they believe Emerson is to American thinking. I often think that many of my fellow American's sometimes credit certain thoughts as American that may be more universal in nature. I would love to hear what a non - American thought about Emerson's supposed American thinking.

i agree that in some ways Emerson had a point, but, he so often wrote things where he took his points so very far.

That is some great verse!

Ryan said...

I might be misinterpreting Emerson here but what I get from this is that book learning is all well and good, but it shouldn't be fetishized. If one does not take the learning they extract from books and apply it to the real world then what is the use? If you only live your life from within the confines of books then what wisdom do you really have to offer to those who come later? Readers and writers need to engage the world in order to understand it. Bibliophiles often forget that crucial part.

Ryan said...

Weird. I wrote a comment and now it seems to have disappeared. Anyway, I wrote something to the effect that I think Emerson is talking about striking a balance between book learning and actually engaging the world we live in. If everything you are and do is in books then what wisdom do you really have to impart about the world you are shunning via books? Books have limited value if they have been written by shut-ins and bookworms. Not sure I agree, but that's what I took from the quote you posted.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan - It is that darn comment moderation which is my defense against spam that only has appeared to have swallowed your comment.

I wish that Emerson had been a little more specific and threw in some examples. It would have shed much light upon the subject.

seraillon said...

What a lovely passage, though I think one could take issue both with Emerson's valuing books solely for their ability to "inspire" (rather than, say, to train the mind, or help one structure experience) and - if I'm understanding this correctly - with his restraint as regards fearing that a book might pitch him out of his "own orbit." I've been happily pitched out of my own orbit by plenty of books I've come to love; not all reading needs to feed one's more systematic thinking about life. A few of them even make handy doorstops.

Also, I can't help but notice an astronomical error Emerson makes akin to the crescent moon that shines away from the sun in "Peanuts" cartoons. If he's in an orbit, he by definition is a satellite.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Seraillon - IHe really was a great prose writer.

While I try not to get knocked out of orbit I may have gotten a bit wobbly over books.

Good point about the astronomical error! My wobbly comment may not really be correct either :)


Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

The only Emerson essay I've ever read is "Self Reliance", which was required reading in my high school American Literature class. However, I don't remember the content at all, so I really should re-read it.

I have mixed feelings about Emerson's views in this essay you're discussing here -- "The American Scholar". I do agree with Emerson in the sense that books are meant to inspire, and not to be slavishly believed. However, if you find a philosophical stance that you entirely agree with, aren't you using your intellectual discernment, too? What's wrong with that? Sometimes a reader will find him/herself in total agreement with a given author, while with others, s/he might only agree partially, and with still others, not at all.

I don't believe in TOTAL self-reliance. I think all of our personal philosophical outlooks are really mixtures of our own views together with the views of others. In fact, human beings have been intellectually influencing each other since we first arrived on the planet - very primitively at first, then with increasing complexity as time went by, and we developed civilization and technology.

It seems to me that Emerson himself might have some influence from Rousseau, who firmly believed in the idea of 'the noble savage'. Oh, what sweet irony!

Another point: I definitely consider myself a bibliomaniac, as well as a bookworm and bibliophile. What, Mr. Emerson, is wrong with that? I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE books passionately!!! I mean, I'd rather spend money on books than on clothes! Give me a book for my birthday and Christmas!!! (As well as for our wedding anniversary, hubs, wink, wink...) Yes, I'm totally obsessed with books -- not just as providers of information and entertainment, but as objects in themselves! They are BEAUTIFUL. I love to smell them, hold them, even HUG them. Of course, ebooks do NOT elicit this obsessive love. I DETEST those. But that's why I'm "the three Bs" above!

Well, I think I'd better step off my soapbox now....

I bid you and the cantankerous Mr. Emerson 'adieu'! Lol.

Hope you're enjoying your Sunday!! : )

Maria Behar said...

P,S. I read the rest of the comments -- yours as well as those of others, after I had posted one myself. It was then that I noticed that you and several others agree that we are, indeed, influenced by ideas from others. No one is COMPLETELY self-reliant.

Just wanted to let you know that I posted my comment before I read the time, I'll do it the other way around, so that I don't find myself re-stating something that has already been

Maria Behar said...

Note to Seraillon:

Books as doorstops?! NEVER!! I treat my books like kings and queens! (The 'kings' are by male authors, and the 'queen's are by female authors...) : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Great comments!

i totally agree, a think that a well balanced person is a combination of outside influences and their own thoughts. Of course a thinking person will, on occasion also come across a set of ideas that influence them because it makes good sense to do so. Though I do think that there are some folks out there who are way too influenced by external ideas.

Your reverence for real books is fantastic and your enthusiasm id infectious. I do however have mixed feelings about ebooks. It's complicated. We should discuss in depth some time.