There are few men that possess such a golden standard of intellectual spirit as Ralph Waldo Emerson. I consider it a great loss that it wasn’t until graduate school that I finally acquainted myself with the man’s work. Now don’t get me wrong, I had heard of Emerson. You can’t be a student of American literature without hearing of the man at some point. He’s kind of important. My first exposure to him was a small quote in What’s Up Doc? A comedy by Peter Bogdonovitch starring a young Barbara Streisand.
Howard: Sir, I must point out to you…
Frederick Larrabee: I must point out to you that foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
Frederick Larrabee: I beg your pardon?
Judy: Ralph Waldo Emerson, born 1803 died 1882.
Frederick Larrabee: You like Emerson?
Judy: I adore him.
Frederick Larrabee: I adore anyone who adores Emerson.
Judy: And I adore anyone who adores anyone who adores Emerson, your turn!
That was about it, until a friend of mine talked my ear off one night at my wife’s wind ensemble concert about Emerson’s craft and philosophical concepts that had sung a song in his heart that had never ceased. But that was it, and as the years continued Emerson continued to be, much like the T.V. show Breaking Bad, an amazing experience that I knew I would some day have to see to actually believe.
Fortune arrived in the fate of a summer course covering a Compare/Contrast course over Frederick Douglass and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Naturally I signed up immediately. It’s been a week in, and, while I find myself more appealed by Douglass, Emerson is everything I thought and hoped he would be, and I would be a fool to suggest that the man should not be read by every American citizen. The man is just excellence supreme.
The first essay, or Speech really, of Emerson I have read was The American Scholar, and I thought it fitting to share a few thoughts of the importance of this essay. As I said a minute ago, every American citizen, who is truly interested in such an identity, should and must read this essay for the argument Emerson posits about what the role of the scholar should be in our society. This is an important idea because, in case you haven’t observed our society lately, scholars and eggheads aren’t particularly revered. The institutions of colleges have, in recent times, come under fire for being hotbeds of liberal indoctrination and this in turn has caused many parents to be concerned about what they’re children learn in college thus altering our previous perception of colleges which were, to quote Leela from Futurama, “Over-expensive day-care centers.” In our public schools teachers regularly have to struggle with over-bearing parents that micromanage every aspect of their children’s lives stymieing the teacher’s possibilities for what can and can’t be taught in the classroom. The push for standardized tests has strangled any semblance of education in our schools. And before people talk about the benefits of private education, I can speak from personal experience: you’re child will receive a wonderful education, but they’ll be a social and emotional fuck-up for years. I had to take a two year hiatus from life and society before I felt comfortable going back to school (well, that and Dad said I had to work or go to school so guess which I picked). The thesis here is that in our society, while we may preach about wanting more opportunity for our children, we don’t provide the financial and personal sacrifices that would really help them.
The scholar in our society, has been sacrificed to special interest mentality, and become victim to gross capitalistic endeavor.
But Emerson enters the scene and affords an alternative idea:
The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances. He plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation. (63).
Now Emerson is not just creating the idea of the old Ivory Tower intellectual, for the man was a Transcendentalist. For those who don’t know what that is, it describes a period in American Literary history where human beings began to shift their creative attention to the power of the individual, and note the sublime aspects of nature. This was a period where writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville hit their peak, and Emerson stands in their ranks as top dog depending on your intellectual perspective. This period was important however for it marked a stage in our countries artistic sense of self where we ceased considering ourselves as part of the English cultural mass, and perceived ourselves as able to craft a national literature. Process that. Today that makes sense, but remember that Emerson is writing in the early 1800s. Only about two hundred years ago our nation decided we could play with the big boys and make art that was entirely our own.
Leaves of Grass, Walden, Moby Dick, and Self Reliance later, and you tell me if you think they succeeded?
But to return to my point, while Emerson is creating a new idea of what the scholar should be he is altering the old idea of the stuffy philosopher locked away in his tower oblivious to the world for he says a few lines before the above quote:
There is virtue yet in the hoe and spade, for learned as well as for unlearned hands. And labor is everywhere welcome; always we are invited to work; only be this limitation observed, that a man shall not for the sake of wider activity sacrifice any opinion to the popular judgments and modes of action. (63).
There is something definitively American to me in this passage, for while Emerson praises the scholar’s intellectual faculties, he ascribes real pathos for the ability to get out of the tower and work. This, unfortunately, seems largely absent from much of our reality. People that live in cities become comfortable with food arriving to their supermarkets, but as time moves on they become divorced from the notion of growing their own field, of being reminded that the fruits of our labor, in every sense of the word, comes from real physical activity. But it’s not just the people in cities, it’s our idea of academics. PhD’s are not known for their athletic ability, nor are scholars typically presented as working-class heroes. Look at me, I spend most of my time indoors reading and writing. I’m as guilty as anybody, and Emerson is rejecting the idea that there is something noble about being purely driven by mind. He sings the praises of action:
As far as this is true of the studious classes, it is not just and wise. Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth. Whilst the world hangs before the eye as a cloud of beauty. Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind. The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action. Only so much do I know, as I have lived. Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not. […] I do not see how any man can afford, for the sake of nerves and his nap, to spare any action in which he can partake. It is pearls and rubies to his discourse. (60).
Emerson is objecting to many faults the contemporary existence of the scholar, and while lack of physical action is one of those principles that scholar seem dedicated of avoiding, Emerson is concerned far more with the social impact of the scholar. His main argument is that the scholar has lost objectivity, he has lost his relevance to the American people, and surely I can sympathize with that? As an English major the first question, always the first question, is: What are you going to do with an English degree?
It’s not so much that this question is spoken out of malice, as it is out of ignorance. I’ve had conversations with professors and students alike that feel concerned that any in the English academia are so acute, so inwardly focused upon their material, that their contribution to academia is irrelevant or useful to society. I’ve read essay after essay of scholars writing about obscure passages in novels, poems, and plays, and while their arguments are brilliant, the language they employ is so thick it’s a wonder anybody is able to understand their arguments. As I’ve said to many before, what’s the point of having and sharing an idea if no one can understand it?
That does not mean scholars should dumb things down, anything but. However, there is a conflict facing scholars of English which is how are we to offer society our knowledge and insight if no one can understand what we’re talking about?
Emerson creates in The American Scholar a new identity for academic to aspire to. He begins by noting the weakness of the current title:
In the distribution of functions, the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state of mind, he is, Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking. […] In life, too often, the scholar errs with mankind and forfeits his privilege. Let us see him in his school, and consider him in reference to the main influences he receives. (54).
This, and I can attest to this from experience, is often the case. Scholarship often times amounts to reading article after article of men citing others who are citing others who are citing others, and after thirty pages all you can muster in terms of an intellectual response is, who gives three shits?! And no scholar wishes to leave behind such a legacy or epithet. The purpose of scholarship, is to read and study what has come before, and find its relevance to contemporary society. In other words, read the works of Emerson and they attempt to convey to people why they should care.
Well why should I care? Why should I bother with Emerson when I could watch Game of Thrones, or the Walking Dead or the Amazing World of Gumball? What relevance does Emerson have to me?
Well, first of all, kudos to you for liking the Amazing World of Gumball. Seriously that is really cute show and the animation is fantastic. It’s real, it’s cgi, it’s 2-D. I wish I had had Gumball when I was a kid instead of Cow and Chicken, but, we have to make do with what we’re given.
Second, because we as a nation are constantly changing, developing, and finding our place in the world stage. “Isolationism is no longer a practical policy,” isn’t just a great line by Sidney Greenstreet in Casablanca, it’s the reality of the American identity. Our nation is no longer the scrappy thirteen colonies working out the kinks of being a functional republic, and the next generations require great minds that are willing and able to step forward. It is the desire to see the American republic built and operated by intelligent men of firm character that makes Emerson relevant:
Not he is great who can alter matter, but he who can alter my state of mind. They are the kings of the world who give the color of their present thought to all nature and all art, and persuade men by the cheerful serenity of their carrying the matter, that this thing which they do, is the apple which the ages have desired to pluck, now at last ripe, and inviting nations to the harvest. (65).
I can only speak to my own mind, but the reason I wanted to become a writer, and intend to become a teacher, is help create and help mold American citizens so that they can contribute to their democracy. I remember overhearing one of my American History professors discussing the tenure board with a colleague and there was one line that stood out to me, “I got into this job to cure ignorance,” and if that doesn’t sell you on Emerson or The American Scholar there ain’t nothing else in my bag of tricks that will.
I want America to be great. I want our students to be outstanding models of wisdom and firm character. In short, the rest of my life will be spent in helping students attain this idea of what it means to be an American Scholar. I want to help my republic and, if nothing else, teach students fun facts about American literature and history. Being a scholar, in my mind, is not about writing esoteric articles and wearing patches and claiming an Ivy League title, it’s about ensuring that I’m doing everything I can as an intellectual.
That’s why Emerson is in important in my mind. He is offers a vision of what America can be, and hopefully what its citizens want it to be.
The passages in this post were cited from the Emerson: Essays and Lectures Library of America edition.