I just finished reading through Ralph Waldo Emerson's American Scholar speech, after stumbling across a citation to it in Wendell Berry's collection of essays, What Are People For? I wanted to jot down a couple quick thoughts, which I hope to refer back to and elaborate upon in subsequent posts:
- Emerson's articulation of the beauty of nature refracted through human subjectivity is persuasive and powerful. He writes of a human mind "tyrannized over by its own unifying instinct, [which] goes on tying things together, diminishing anomalies, discovering roots running under ground - whereby contrary and remote things cohere, and flower out from one stem." This instinct toward reconciliation sits at the foundation of my thinking in many ways - and though it would pain my chemist dad to no end to hear me say it, I am in full agreement with Emerson's belief that "science is nothing but the finding of analogy, identity, in the most remote parts." In this way, Emerson explains, "the ancient precept (Know Thyself) and the modern precept (Study Nature) become at last one maxim."
- Emerson's warning about the susceptibility of human beings to authoritarianism, arguments from authority, and the surrender of the gift of critical thinking is very well taken. "The writer was a just and wise spirit," Emerson chides, "and henceforth it is settled: the book is perfect." Thus, "the guide becomes a tyrant. We sought a brother, and lo, a governor." Books, he reminds us, "are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book than be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system." This mindset rejects the idea that books contain answers, particularly insofar as answers are the end of questions and as such a detriment to inquiry. I believe this is a radical idea, albeit subtly so.
- Finally, in writing of the duties of "the American Scholar," Emerson paints a picture of one who "plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation." "Drudgery, exasperation, calamity, and want are instructors in eloquence and wisdom." These counterintuitive qualities have taken us to the brink of a revolution, Emerson writes, and "this revolution is to be wrought by the gradual domestication of the idea of Culture." While Emerson does not delve into this topic in much depth, I believe it is is the most interesting and potentially important idea in the whole of his speech, and it is one that I hope to examine and unpack in greater detail in the weeks ahead.