22 pages 44 minutes read

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The American Scholar

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1837

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The American Scholar”

“The American Scholar” is a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson, transposed into an essay. The occasion for the lecture was an address that Emerson gave to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge, on August 31, 1837.

The subject of the lecture is the role of the American intellectual, as distinct from the European intellectual. Emerson calls for an intellectualism that is engaged, optimistic, and forward-thinking. He believes that American scholars have been overly dependent on their European forebears, and that they need to forge a role of their own. He warns against the “sluggard intellects” (Paragraph 1) that are a result of overspecialization, and notes that “[m]an is thus metamorphosed into a thing” (Paragraph 5), rather than a full man.

Emerson views the role of the American intellectual in regard to nature, books, and action; these three different influences form three separate numbered sections of the lecture. In the first section, Emerson examines the intellectual’s relation to nature. He discusses the process by which scholars learn how to classify the natural world and to see the laws and systems behind the apparent disorderliness of nature: “To the young mind, everything is individual, stands by itself. By and by, it finds how to join two things and sees in them one nature; then three, then three thousand” (Paragraph 8). Emerson warns against this process of tying separate things together to which they become overly detached and disembodied: a mere “accumulation and classifying of facts” (Paragraph 8). He urges instead that the intellectual learns how to see the natural world as a reflection of his own soul, and its laws as being equivalent to those of the human mind: “Nature then becomes to him the measure of his attainments […] And, in fine, the ancient precept, ‘Know thyself,’ and the modern precept, ‘Study nature,’ become at last one maxim” (Paragraph 9).

In the second section of his lecture, Emerson discusses what he sees as the American intellectual’s ideal relation to books and warns against an overly reverential and backwards-looking approach to literature. He reminds us that earlier lauded writers such as Cicero, Locke, and Bacon “were only young men in libraries when they wrote those books” (Paragraph 13). While acknowledging the inherent sacredness of old books, he sees “a grave mischief” (Paragraph 13) in whole colleges and fields of study being devoted to the study of these books. He believes that such institutions can breed a timid and cautious brand of intellectual, and instead calls for a less fearful approach to both writing and reading. He reminds us that every book must speak of its time, and that every book is human and flawed. He believes that the intellectual who leads a full and vigorous life—that is, a life apart from books—will bring more to his reading and his writing: “One must be an inventor to read well […] When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion” (Paragraph 19).

This leads Emerson to the third section of his speech, involving the importance of action in the life of the American intellectual. Stating that “life is our dictionary” (Paragraph 25), he invokes the necessity of empirical observation and being engaged in the immediate physical world. He speaks of the ways in which living and thinking inform each other as being equivalent to the laws of nature:

That great principle of Undulation in nature, that shows itself in the inspiring and expiring of the breath; in desire and satiety; in the ebb and flow of the sea; in day and night; in heat and cold […] is known to us under the name of Polarity […] The mind now thinks, now acts, and each fit reproduces the other (Paragraphs 26-7).

Emerson then turns his attention to what he sees as the duties of the American scholar. These duties are democratic and individualistic in nature. He emphasizes the importance of “self-trust” for an intellectual, and the necessity of ignoring what is fashionable: “defer never to the popular cry” (Paragraph 31). He also urges the intellectual not to shrink from the world or to think of himself as a “protected class” (Paragraph 32), but rather to see the world as a thing that he can remake. He rejects the “great man” (Paragraph 33) theory—the idea that only certain designated leaders can remake society—and states that the individual writer should see his role as active and essential as that of a statesman, if not more so: “The private life of one man shall be a more illustrious monarchy, more formidable to its enemy, more sweet and serene in its influence to its friend, than any kingdom in history” (Paragraph 35).

In the final part of the essay, Emerson turns his attention to his immediate time. He sees cause for hope in what others have decried: the increased emphasis in society on the individual, and the increased attention paid to “the near, the low, the common” (Paragraph 40). He states that “[t]his time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it” (Paragraph 38) and declares that “[t]he world is nothing, the man is all” (Paragraph 43). This last statement underscores his belief that the world is not a finished, separate thing, but is in continual flux and a reflection of man’s consciousness.