View Full Version : The American Scholar

09-29-2005, 06:17 PM
Transcendentalism: A Reader
Edited by Joel Myerson

“I accept the topic which not only usage, but the nature of our association, seem to prescribe to this day,--the AMERICAN SCHOLAR…Let us inquire what new lights, new events and more days have thrown on his character, his duties and his hopes” said Ralph Waldo Emerson in his commencement address to Harvard in 1837. (196) Rather than praise the Harvard graduates for their successes at the nation’s most prestigious school, Emerson presents a blunt argument that “instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm.” (199) Throughout his seventy-five minute speech he argues that the true scholar is not one who looks to the past and imitates the thoughts of previous authors, but is one who is not afraid to express his own, authentic voice; a voice that comes from deep within his soul and from his life, not from the books he has hovered over in the library. He states, “Life is our dictionary…When the artist has exhausted his materials, when the fancy no longer paints, when thoughts are no longer apprehended, and books are a weariness,--he has always the resource to live…Time shall teach him that the scholar loses no hour which the man lives.” (203-204) Emerson urges the graduates to pursue academia nontraditionally resorting to their experiences in life as a source for inspiration as opposed to published scholarly information. Though books can be used as a resource, the “Man Thinking” is one that realizes the value of an education gained through living.

A year after Emerson told the Harvard graduates that living, not reading should be the source of education, he echoed a similar argument in his address to the Divinity School in 1838. He stated, “Historical Christianity has fallen it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual.” (236) Like the scholars who shall resort to life and their own soul for educational inspiration, Emerson urges preachers to value their own set of morals within their soul and be less dependent on historical Christian doctrines that place the self subordinate to Christ. Arguing against the state of Christianity, Emerson faced fierce, negative feedback as Andrews Norton commented a month later: “we can hardly overestimate the disastrous effects upon the religious and moral state of the community.” (249) Emerson would have to wait ten years until he was formally asked to return to the school.