Sunday, November 9, 2008

Intellectual Declaration of Independence

Ralph Waldo Emerson still stands as one of the most influential American writers of all time. Through his writings, poems and speeches, Emerson began, what is now known as, the transcendentalist movement, which favored intuition over traditional doctrine. In 1837, Emerson delivered a famous speech, titled “The American Scholar” to the Phi Beta Kappa Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts. With this groundbreaking work, Emerson became the pioneering voice for the power of the American intellect, so much so that Oliver Wendell Holmes deemed “The American Scholar” to be America’s “Intellectual Declaration of Independence.”

Even 60 years after the revolution, Europe still exercised a heavy influence on American culture, especially literature. Emerson made the first notable attempt to break away from Europe’s intellectual shadow by characterizing a uniquely American style of thought and tradition. “Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close,” Emerson declares in the opening of the address (1138). Specifically, in this essay, Emerson answers the question, “How can one be a scholar in America?” Emerson notes three areas in which Americans can make intellect their own – nature, books and action.

According to Emerson, a scholar must first turn to nature for inspiration. Through the “study of nature” one can come to “know thyself” (1140). When observing the basics of nature, we classify certain elements as either beautiful and noteworthy or boring and monotonous. By individually declaring these classifications, we become one with nature. Through individualized thought, we have the power to shape our interpretation of nature and therefore, nature itself. Emerson sums up the influence of nature on man, when he says, “Its beauty is the beauty of his own mind” (1140).

Emerson’s second source of inspiration for scholarship is books. “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst,” Emerson said (1141). Abuse of books comes from the mere recitation of historical facts, which was the staple of “bookworm” British intellect. Instead of memorizing history, Emerson believed books should only be used to gather information in order to form one’s own opinion. Books should inspire new thought and new theory.

Finally, a scholar must take action. In addition to exposing himself to a variety of professions and perspectives, a scholar must exert confidence in his own abilities to think and trust his intuition and instincts. Individualism, or the will to never give in to popular opinion, is the only source of true scholarship. Emerson criticized conformity when he said, “In the degenerate state, he (man) tends to become a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking” (1139).

Although almost 200 years removed, Emerson’s call for America’s unique intellectual evolution, reminds me of Barack Obama’s rhetoric of the 2008 Presidential Election. Similar to Emerson’s opening words of “hope,” Obama also focused on the importance of education, in order to build a better and brighter America. Emerson reminds us, as students, and more importantly humans, that change is good and that the only hindrance to our success is our own imagination.

Emerson’s “American Scholar” address is an insightful and refreshing reminder for why I love studying liberal arts and literature so much. I found a perfect quote that summarizes Emerson’s core belief and inspires me to use my talents to better myself and help others. He once said, “Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you.”


Ross Pisarkiewicz said...

Emerson places so much emphasis on the individual thinker. Saying that it is up to the individual and his independent thought to allow change. It is also up to us to determine what we consider valubale or beautiful in society and our world. Emerson saw society as being against anyone of it's members that promoted change. He promotes us to act in accorandance with our own free will. I like that you incorporated Obama's speach on change. It's interesting to see, that in our present day, there are still mavricks out there like Emerson.

Mathew said...

I do find it interesting on how 'timeless' American Scholar really is. In my opinion, it hits upon an issue that will always be present when concerning the motive and execution of education. I also liked how you related American Scholar's message to Obama, as it is even more evidence to how the division between Man Thinking and the thinking man exists even 200 years after the speech's conception (And I doubt Emerson even intended for something like this to still be an issue as well)