Summary and Analysis of The American Scholar
After Emerson has discussed how nature, books, and action educate the scholar, he now addresses the scholar's obligations to society. First, he considers these obligations in general, abstract terms; then he relates them to the particular situation of the American scholar.
The scholar's first and most important duty is to develop unflinching self-trust and a mind that will be a repository of wisdom for other people. This is a difficult task, Emerson says, because the scholar must endure poverty, hardship, tedium, solitude, and other privations while following the path of knowledge. Self-sacrifice is often called for, as demonstrated in Emerson's examples of two astronomers who spent many hours in tedious and solitary observation of space in order to make discoveries that benefited mankind. Many readers will wonder just how satisfying the reward really is when Emerson acknowledges that the scholar "is to find consolation in exercising the highest functions of human nature."
The true scholar is dedicated to preserving the wisdom of the past and is obligated to communicating the noblest thoughts and feelings to the public. This last duty means that the scholar — "who raises himself from private considerations, and breathes and lives on public illustrious thoughts" — must always remain independent in thinking and judgment, regardless of popular opinion, fad, notoriety, or expediency. Because the scholar discovers universal ideas, those held by the universal human mind, he can communicate with people of all classes and ages: "He is the world's eye. He is the world's heart."
Although he appears to lead a reclusive and benign life, the scholar must be brave because he deals in ideas, a dangerous currency. Self-trust is the source of courage and can be traced to the transcendental conviction that the true thinker sees all thought as one; universal truth is present in all people, although not all people are aware of it. Instead of thinking individually, we live vicariously through our heroes; we seek self-worth through others when we should search for it in ourselves. The noblest ambition is to improve human nature by fulfilling our individual natures.
Emerson concludes the essay by observing that different ages in Western civilization, which he terms the Classic, the Romantic, and the Reflective (or the Philosophical) periods, have been characterized by different dominant ideas, and he acknowledges that he has neglected speaking about the importance of differences between ages while speaking perhaps too fervently about the transcendental unity of all human thought.
Emerson now proposes an evolutionary development of civilization, comparable to the development of a person from childhood to adulthood. The present age — the first half of the 1800s — is an age of criticism, especially self-criticism. Although some people find such criticism to be an inferior philosophy, Emerson believes that it is valid and important. Initiating a series of questions, he asks whether discontent with the quality of current thought and literature is such a bad thing; he answers that it is not. Dissatisfaction, he says, marks a transitional period of growth and evolution into new knowledge: "If there is any period one would desire to be born in,is it not the age of Revolution; when the old and the new stand side by side, and admit of being compared; . . . This [present] time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it."
Emerson applauds the views of English and German romantic poets like Wordsworth and Goethe, who find inspiration and nobility in the lives and work of common people. Instead of regarding only royal and aristocratic subjects as appropriate for great and philosophical literature, the Romantic writers reveal the poetry and sublimity in the lives of lower-class and working people. Their writing is full of life and vitality, and it exemplifies the transcendental doctrine of the unity of all people. Ironically, we should remember that at the beginning of the essay, Emerson advocated Americans' throwing off the European mantle that cloaks their own culture. Here, he distinguishes between a European tradition that celebrates the lives of common people, and one that celebrates only the monarchical rule of nations: "We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe."
Making special reference to the Swedish philosopher and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, Emerson contends that although Swedenborg has not received his due recognition, he revealed the essential connection between the human mind and the natural world, the fundamental oneness of humans and nature. Emerson finds much inspiration for his own thinking and writing in the doctrines of Swedenborg.
In his long, concluding paragraph, Emerson dwells on the romantic ideal of the individual. This fundamentally American concept, which he develops at much greater length in the essay "Self-Reliance," is America's major contribution to the world of ideas. The scholar must be independent, courageous, and original; in thinking and acting, the scholar must demonstrate that America is not the timid society it is assumed to be. We must refuse to be mere purveyors of the past's wisdom: ". . . this confidence in the unsearched might of man, belongs by all motives, by all prophecy, by all preparation, to the American Scholar," who will create a native, truly American culture.