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
Even 60 years after the revolution,
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
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.”