Sign up for our RWE mailing list

The American Scholar

An Oration delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, at Cambridge, August
31, 1837

Mr. President and Gentlemen,

I greet you on the re-commencement of our literary year. Our anniversary is
one of hope, and, perhaps, not enough of labor. We do not meet for games of
strength or skill, for the recitation of histories, tragedies, and odes, like
the ancient Greeks; for parliaments of love and poesy, like the Troubadours; nor
for the advancement of science, like our cotemporaries in the British and
European capitals. Thus far, our holiday has been simply a friendly sign of the
survival of the love of letters amongst a people too busy to give to letters any
more. As such, it is precious as the sign of an indestructible instinct. Perhaps
the time is already come, when it ought to be, and will be, something else; when
the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids, and
fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the
exertions of mechanical skill. Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to
the learning of other lands, draws to a close. The millions, that around us are
rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests.
Events, actions arise, that must be sung, that will sing themselves. Who can
doubt, that poetry will revive and lead in a new age, as the star in the
constellation Harp, which now flames in our zenith, astronomers announce, shall
one day be the pole-star for a thousand years?

In this hope, I accept the topic which not only usage, but the nature of our
association, seem to prescribe to this day, — the AMERICAN SCHOLAR. Year by
year, we come up hither to read one more chapter of his biography. Let us
inquire what light new days and events have thrown on his character, and his

It is one of those fables, which, out of an unknown antiquity, convey an
unlooked-for wisdom, that the gods, in the beginning, divided Man into men, that
he might be more helpful to himself; just as the hand was divided into fingers,
the better to answer its end.

The old fable covers a doctrine ever new and sublime; that there is One Man,
— present to all particular men only partially, or through one faculty; and
that you must take the whole society to find the whole man. Man is not a farmer,
or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and
statesman, and producer, and soldier. In the divided or social state, these
functions are parcelled out to individuals, each of whom aims to do his stint of
the joint work, whilst each other performs his. The fable implies, that the
individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to
embrace all the other laborers. But unfortunately, this original unit, this
fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely
subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be
gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered
amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters, — a good
finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.

Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things. The planter, who is
Man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the
true dignity of his ministry. He sees his bushel and his cart, and nothing
beyond, and sinks into the farmer, instead of Man on the farm. The tradesman
scarcely ever gives an ideal worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of
his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars. The priest becomes a form; the
attorney, a statute-book; the mechanic, a machine; the sailor, a rope of a ship.

In this distribution of functions, the scholar is the delegated intellect. In
the right state, 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 this view of him, as Man Thinking, the theory of his office is contained.
Him nature solicits with all her placid, all her monitory pictures; him the past
instructs; him the future invites. Is not, indeed, every man a student, and do
not all things exist for the student’s behoof? And, finally, is not the true
scholar the only true master? But the old oracle said, `All things have two
handles: beware of the wrong one.’ 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.

I. The first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the
mind is that of nature. Every day, the sun; and, after sunset, night and her
stars. Ever the winds blow; ever the grass grows. Every day, men and women,
conversing, beholding and beholden. The scholar is he of all men whom this
spectacle most engages. He must settle its value in his mind. What is nature to
him? There is never a beginning, there is never an end, to the inexplicable
continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning into itself.
Therein it resembles his own spirit, whose beginning, whose ending, he never can
find, — so entire, so boundless. Far, too, as her splendors shine, system on
system shooting like rays, upward, downward, without centre, without
circumference, — in the mass and in the particle, nature hastens to render
account of herself to the mind. Classification begins. To the young mind, every
thing is individual, stands by itself. By and by, it finds how to join two
things, and see in them one nature; then three, then three thousand; and so,
tyrannized over by its own unifying instinct, it goes on tying things together,
diminishing anomalies, discovering roots running under ground, whereby contrary
and remote things cohere, and flower out from one stem. It presently learns,
that, since the dawn of history, there has been a constant accumulation and
classifying of facts. But what is classification but the perceiving that these
objects are not chaotic, and are not foreign, but have a law which is also a law
of the human mind? The astronomer discovers that geometry, a pure abstraction of
the human mind, is the measure of planetary motion. The chemist finds
proportions and intelligible method throughout matter; and science is nothing
but the finding of analogy, identity, in the most remote parts. The ambitious
soul sits down before each refractory fact; one after another, reduces all
strange constitutions, all new powers, to their class and their law, and goes on
for ever to animate the last fibre of organization, the outskirts of nature, by

Thus to him, to this school-boy under the bending dome of day, is suggested,
that he and it proceed from one root; one is leaf and one is flower; relation,
sympathy, stirring in every vein. And what is that Root? Is not that the soul of
his soul? — A thought too bold, — a dream too wild. Yet when this spiritual
light shall have revealed the law of more earthly natures, — when he has
learned to worship the soul, and to see that the natural philosophy that now is,
is only the first gropings of its gigantic hand, he shall look forward to an
ever expanding knowledge as to a becoming creator. He shall see, that nature is
the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part. One is seal, and one is
print. Its beauty is the beauty of his own mind. Its laws are the laws of his
own mind. Nature then becomes to him the measure of his attainments. So much of
nature as he is ignorant of, so much of his own mind does he not yet possess.
And, in fine, the ancient precept, “Know thyself,” and the modern precept,
“Study nature,” become at last one maxim.

II. The next great influence into the spirit of the scholar, is, the mind of
the Past, — in whatever form, whether of literature, of art, of institutions,
that mind is inscribed. Books are the best type of the influence of the past,
and perhaps we shall get at the truth, — learn the amount of this influence
more conveniently, — by considering their value alone.

The theory of books is noble. The scholar of the first age received into him
the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind,
and uttered it again. It came into him, life; it went out from him, truth. It
came to him, short-lived actions; it went out from him, immortal thoughts. It
came to him, business; it went from him, poetry. It was dead fact; now, it is
quick thought. It can stand, and it can go. It now endures, it now flies, it now
inspires. Precisely in proportion to the depth of mind from which it issued, so
high does it soar, so long does it sing.

Or, I might say, it depends on how far the process had gone, of transmuting
life into truth. In proportion to the completeness of the distillation, so will
the purity and imperishableness of the product be. But none is quite perfect. As
no air-pump can by any means make a perfect vacuum, so neither can any artist
entirely exclude the conventional, the local, the perishable from his book, or
write a book of pure thought, that shall be as efficient, in all respects, to a
remote posterity, as to cotemporaries, or rather to the second age. Each age, it
is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next
succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this.

Yet hence arises a grave mischief. The sacredness which attaches to the act
of creation, — the act of thought, — is transferred to the record. The poet
chanting, was felt to be a divine man: henceforth the chant is divine also. The
writer was a just and wise spirit: henceforward it is settled, the book is
perfect; as love of the hero corrupts into worship of his statue. Instantly, the
book becomes noxious: the guide is a tyrant. The sluggish and perverted mind of
the multitude, slow to open to the incursions of Reason, having once so opened,
having once received this book, stands upon it, and makes an outcry, if it is
disparaged. Colleges are built on it. Books are written on it by thinkers, not
by Man Thinking; by men of talent, that is, who start wrong, who set out from
accepted dogmas, not from their own sight of principles. Meek young men grow up
in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which
Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were
only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.

Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm. Hence, the book-learned
class, who value books, as such; not as related to nature and the human
constitution, but as making a sort of Third Estate with the world and the soul.
Hence, the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all

Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the
right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for
nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its
attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system.
The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul. This every man is
entitled to; this every man contains within him, although, in almost all men,
obstructed, and as yet unborn. The soul active sees absolute truth; and utters
truth, or creates. In this action, it is genius; not the privilege of here and
there a favorite, but the sound estate of every man. In its essence, it is
progressive. The book, the college, the school of art, the institution of any
kind, stop with some past utterance of genius. This is good, say they, — let us
hold by this. They pin me down. They look backward and not forward. But genius
looks forward: the eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead: man
hopes: genius creates. Whatever talents may be, if the man create not, the pure
efflux of the Deity is not his; — cinders and smoke there may be, but not yet
flame. There are creative manners, there are creative actions, and creative
words; manners, actions, words, that is, indicative of no custom or authority,
but springing spontaneous from the mind’s own sense of good and fair.

On the other part, instead of being its own seer, let it receive from another
mind its truth, though it were in torrents of light, without periods of
solitude, inquest, and self-recovery, and a fatal disservice is done. Genius is
always sufficiently the enemy of genius by over influence. The literature of
every nation bear me witness. The English dramatic poets have Shakspearized now
for two hundred years.

Undoubtedly there is a right way of reading, so it be sternly subordinated.
Man Thinking must not be subdued by his instruments. Books are for the scholar’s
idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted
in other men’s transcripts of their readings. But when the intervals of darkness
come, as come they must, — when the sun is hid, and the stars withdraw their
shining, — we repair to the lamps which were kindled by their ray, to guide our
steps to the East again, where the dawn is. We hear, that we may speak. The
Arabian proverb says, “A fig tree, looking on a fig tree, becometh fruitful.”

It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best
books. They impress us with the conviction, that one nature wrote and the same
reads. We read the verses of one of the great English poets, of Chaucer, of
Marvell, of Dryden, with the most modern joy, — with a pleasure, I mean, which
is in great part caused by the abstraction of all time from their verses. There
is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in
some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to
my own soul, that which I also had wellnigh thought and said. But for the
evidence thence afforded to the philosophical doctrine of the identity of all
minds, we should suppose some preestablished harmony, some foresight of souls
that were to be, and some preparation of stores for their future wants, like the
fact observed in insects, who lay up food before death for the young grub they
shall never see.

I would not be hurried by any love of system, by any exaggeration of
instincts, to underrate the Book. We all know, that, as the human body can be
nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so
the human mind can be fed by any knowledge. And great and heroic men have
existed, who had almost no other information than by the printed page. I only
would say, that it needs a strong head to bear that diet. One must be an
inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth
of the Indies, must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” There is then creative
reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and
invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold
allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is
as broad as the world. We then see, what is always true, that, as the seer’s
hour of vision is short and rare among heavy days and months, so is its record,
perchance, the least part of his volume. The discerning will read, in his Plato
or Shakspeare, only that least part, — only the authentic utterances of the
oracle; — all the rest he rejects, were it never so many times Plato’s and

Of course, there is a portion of reading quite indispensable to a wise man.
History and exact science he must learn by laborious reading. Colleges, in like
manner, have their indispensable office, — to teach elements. But they can only
highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather
from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the
concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame. Thought and
knowledge are natures in which apparatus and pretension avail nothing. Gowns,
and pecuniary foundations, though of towns of gold, can never countervail the
least sentence or syllable of wit. Forget this, and our American colleges will
recede in their public importance, whilst they grow richer every year.

III. There goes in the world a notion, that the scholar should be a recluse,
a valetudinarian, — as unfit for any handiwork or public labor, as a penknife
for an axe. The so-called `practical men’ sneer at speculative men, as if,
because they speculate or see, they could do nothing. I have heard it said that
the clergy, — who are always, more universally than any other class, the
scholars of their day, — are addressed as women; that the rough, spontaneous
conversation of men they do not hear, but only a mincing and diluted speech.
They are often virtually disfranchised; and, indeed, there are advocates for
their celibacy. 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, we cannot even see its
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.

The world, — this shadow of the soul, or other me, lies wide around. Its
attractions are the keys which unlock my thoughts and make me acquainted with
myself. I run eagerly into this resounding tumult. I grasp the hands of those
next me, and take my place in the ring to suffer and to work, taught by an
instinct, that so shall the dumb abyss be vocal with speech. I pierce its order;
I dissipate its fear; I dispose of it within the circuit of my expanding life.
So much only of life as I know by experience, so much of the wilderness have I
vanquished and planted, or so far have I extended my being, my dominion. I do
not see how any man can afford, for the sake of his nerves and his nap, to spare
any action in which he can partake. It is pearls and rubies to his discourse.
Drudgery, calamity, exasperation, want, are instructers in eloquence and wisdom.
The true scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of

It is the raw material out of which the intellect moulds her splendid
products. A strange process too, this, by which experience is converted into
thought, as a mulberry leaf is converted into satin. The manufacture goes
forward at all hours.

The actions and events of our childhood and youth, are now matters of calmest
observation. They lie like fair pictures in the air. Not so with our recent
actions, — with the business which we now have in hand. On this we are quite
unable to speculate. Our affections as yet circulate through it. We no more feel
or know it, than we feel the feet, or the hand, or the brain of our body. The
new deed is yet a part of life, — remains for a time immersed in our
unconscious life. In some contemplative hour, it detaches itself from the life
like a ripe fruit, to become a thought of the mind. Instantly, it is raised,
transfigured; the corruptible has put on incorruption. Henceforth it is an
object of beauty, however base its origin and neighborhood. Observe, too, the
impossibility of antedating this act. In its grub state, it cannot fly, it
cannot shine, it is a dull grub. But suddenly, without observation, the selfsame
thing unfurls beautiful wings, and is an angel of wisdom. So is there no fact,
no event, in our private history, which shall not, sooner or later, lose its
adhesive, inert form, and astonish us by soaring from our body into the
empyrean. Cradle and infancy, school and playground, the fear of boys, and dogs,
and ferules, the love of little maids and berries, and many another fact that
once filled the whole sky, are gone already; friend and relative, profession and
party, town and country, nation and world, must also soar and sing.

Of course, he who has put forth his total strength in fit actions, has the
richest return of wisdom. I will not shut myself out of this globe of action,
and transplant an oak into a flower-pot, there to hunger and pine; nor trust the
revenue of some single faculty, and exhaust one vein of thought, much like those
Savoyards, who, getting their livelihood by carving shepherds, shepherdesses,
and smoking Dutchmen, for all Europe, went out one day to the mountain to find
stock, and discovered that they had whittled up the last of their pine-trees.
Authors we have, in numbers, who have written out their vein, and who, moved by
a commendable prudence, sail for Greece or Palestine, follow the trapper into
the prairie, or ramble round Algiers, to replenish their merchantable stock.

If it were only for a vocabulary, the scholar would be covetous of action.
Life is our dictionary. Years are well spent in country labors; in town, — in
the insight into trades and manufactures; in frank intercourse with many men and
women; in science; in art; to the one end of mastering in all their facts a
language by which to illustrate and embody our perceptions. I learn immediately
from any speaker how much he has already lived, through the poverty or the
splendor of his speech. Life lies behind us as the quarry from whence we get
tiles and copestones for the masonry of to-day. This is the way to learn
grammar. Colleges and books only copy the language which the field and the
work-yard made.

But the final value of action, like that of books, and better than books, is,
that it is a resource. That great principle of Undulation in nature, that shows
itself in the inspiring and expiring of the breath; in desire and satiety; in
the ebb and flow of the sea; in day and night; in heat and cold; and as yet more
deeply ingrained in every atom and every fluid, is known to us under the name of
Polarity, — these “fits of easy transmission and reflection,” as Newton called
them, are the law of nature because they are the law of spirit.

The mind now thinks; now acts; and each fit reproduces the other. 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. Character is higher than intellect. Thinking is the
function. Living is the functionary. The stream retreats to its source. A great
soul will be strong to live, as well as strong to think. Does he lack organ or
medium to impart his truths? He can still fall back on this elemental force of
living them. This is a total act. Thinking is a partial act. Let the grandeur of
justice shine in his affairs. Let the beauty of affection cheer his lowly roof.
Those ‘far from fame,’ who dwell and act with him, will feel the force of his
constitution in the doings and passages of the day better than it can be
measured by any public and designed display. Time shall teach him, that the
scholar loses no hour which the man lives. Herein he unfolds the sacred germ of
his instinct, screened from influence. What is lost in seemliness is gained in
strength. Not out of those, on whom systems of education have exhausted their
culture, comes the helpful giant to destroy the old or to build the new, but out
of unhandselled savage nature, out of terrible Druids and Berserkirs, come at
last Alfred and Shakspeare.

I hear therefore with joy whatever is beginning to be said of the dignity and
necessity of labor to every citizen. There is virtue yet in the hoe and the
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.

I have now spoken of the education of the scholar by nature, by books, and by
action. It remains to say somewhat of his duties.

They are such as become Man Thinking. They may all be comprised in
self-trust. 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. Flamsteed and Herschel, in their glazed observatories, may
catalogue the stars with the praise of all men, and, the results being splendid
and useful, honor is sure. But he, in his private observatory, cataloguing
obscure and nebulous stars of the human mind, which as yet no man has thought of
as such, — watching days and months, sometimes, for a few facts; correcting
still his old records; — must relinquish display and immediate fame. In the
long period of his preparation, he must betray often an ignorance and
shiftlessness in popular arts, incurring the disdain of the able who shoulder
him aside. Long he must stammer in his speech; often forego the living for the
dead. Worse yet, he must accept, — how often! poverty and solitude. For the
ease and pleasure of treading the old road, accepting the fashions, the
education, the religion of society, he takes the cross of making his own, and,
of course, the self-accusation, the faint heart, the frequent uncertainty and
loss of time, which are the nettles and tangling vines in the way of the
self-relying and self-directed; and the state of virtual hostility in which he
seems to stand to society, and especially to educated society. For all this loss
and scorn, what offset? He is to find consolation in exercising the highest
functions of human nature. He is one, who raises himself from private
considerations, and breathes and lives on public and illustrious thoughts. He is
the world’s eye. He is the world’s heart. He is to resist the vulgar prosperity
that retrogrades ever to barbarism, by preserving and communicating heroic
sentiments, noble biographies, melodious verse, and the conclusions of history.
Whatsoever oracles the human heart, in all emergencies, in all solemn hours, has
uttered as its commentary on the world of actions, — these he shall receive and
impart. And whatsoever new verdict Reason from her inviolable seat pronounces on
the passing men and events of to-day, — this he shall hear and promulgate.

These being his functions, it becomes him to feel all confidence in himself,
and to defer never to the popular cry. He and he only knows the world. The world
of any moment is the merest appearance. Some great decorum, some fetish of a
government, some ephemeral trade, or war, or man, is cried up by half mankind
and cried down by the other half, as if all depended on this particular up or
down. The odds are that the whole question is not worth the poorest thought
which the scholar has lost in listening to the controversy. Let him not quit his
belief that a popgun is a popgun, though the ancient and honorable of the earth
affirm it to be the crack of doom. In silence, in steadiness, in severe
abstraction, let him hold by himself; add observation to observation, patient of
neglect, patient of reproach; and bide his own time, — happy enough, if he can
satisfy himself alone, that this day he has seen something truly. Success treads
on every right step. For the instinct is sure, that prompts him to tell his
brother what he thinks. He then learns, that in going down into the secrets of
his own mind, he has descended into the secrets of all minds. He learns that he
who has mastered any law in his private thoughts, is master to that extent of
all men whose language he speaks, and of all into whose language his own can be
translated. The poet, in utter solitude remembering his spontaneous thoughts and
recording them, is found to have recorded that, which men in crowded cities find
true for them also. The orator distrusts at first the fitness of his frank
confessions, — his want of knowledge of the persons he addresses, — until he
finds that he is the complement of his hearers; — that they drink his words
because he fulfils for them their own nature; the deeper he dives into his
privatest, secretest presentiment, to his wonder he finds, this is the most
acceptable, most public, and universally true. The people delight in it; the
better part of every man feels, This is my music; this is myself.

In self-trust, all the virtues are comprehended. Free should the scholar be,
— free and brave. Free even to the definition of freedom, “without any
hindrance that does not arise out of his own constitution.” Brave; for fear is a
thing, which a scholar by his very function puts behind him. Fear always springs
from ignorance. It is a shame to him if his tranquillity, amid dangerous times,
arise from the presumption, that, like children and women, his is a protected
class; or if he seek a temporary peace by the diversion of his thoughts from
politics or vexed questions, hiding his head like an ostrich in the flowering
bushes, peeping into microscopes, and turning rhymes, as a boy whistles to keep
his courage up. So is the danger a danger still; so is the fear worse. Manlike
let him turn and face it. Let him look into its eye and search its nature,
inspect its origin, — see the whelping of this lion, — which lies no great way
back; he will then find in himself a perfect comprehension of its nature and
extent; he will have made his hands meet on the other side, and can henceforth
defy it, and pass on superior. The world is his, who can see through its
pretension. What deafness, what stone-blind custom, what overgrown error you
behold, is there only by sufferance, — by your sufferance. See it to be a lie,
and you have already dealt it its mortal blow.

Yes, we are the cowed, — we the trustless. It is a mischievous notion that
we are come late into nature; that the world was finished a long time ago. As
the world was plastic and fluid in the hands of God, so it is ever to so much of
his attributes as we bring to it. To ignorance and sin, it is flint. They adapt
themselves to it as they may; but in proportion as a man has any thing in him
divine, the firmament flows before him and takes his signet and form. 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. The great man
makes the great thing. Wherever Macdonald sits, there is the head of the table.
Linnaeus makes botany the most alluring of studies, and wins it from the farmer
and the herb-woman; Davy, chemistry; and Cuvier, fossils. The day is always his,
who works in it with serenity and great aims. The unstable estimates of men
crowd to him whose mind is filled with a truth, as the heaped waves of the
Atlantic follow the moon.

For this self-trust, the reason is deeper than can be fathomed, — darker
than can be enlightened. I might not carry with me the feeling of my audience in
stating my own belief. But I have already shown the ground of my hope, in
adverting to the doctrine that man is one. I believe man has been wronged; he
has wronged himself. He has almost lost the light, that can lead him back to his
prerogatives. Men are become of no account. Men in history, men in the world of
to-day are bugs, are spawn, and are called `the mass’ and `the herd.’ In a
century, in a millennium, one or two men; that is to say, — one or two
approximations to the right state of every man. All the rest behold in the hero
or the poet their own green and crude being, — ripened; yes, and are content to
be less, so that may attain to its full stature. What a testimony, — full of
grandeur, full of pity, is borne to the demands of his own nature, by the poor
clansman, the poor partisan, who rejoices in the glory of his chief. The poor
and the low find some amends to their immense moral capacity, for their
acquiescence in a political and social inferiority. They are content to be
brushed like flies from the path of a great person, so that justice shall be
done by him to that common nature which it is the dearest desire of all to see
enlarged and glorified. They sun themselves in the great man’s light, and feel
it to be their own element. They cast the dignity of man from their downtrod
selves upon the shoulders of a hero, and will perish to add one drop of blood to
make that great heart beat, those giant sinews combat and conquer. He lives for
us, and we live in him.

Men such as they are, very naturally seek money or power; and power because
it is as good as money, — the “spoils,” so called, “of office.” And why not?
for they aspire to the highest, and this, in their sleep-walking, they dream is
highest. Wake them, and they shall quit the false good, and leap to the true,
and leave governments to clerks and desks. This revolution is to be wrought by
the gradual domestication of the idea of Culture. The main enterprise of the
world for splendor, for extent, is the upbuilding of a man. Here are the
materials strown along the ground. The private life of one man shall be a more
illustrious monarchy, — more formidable to its enemy, more sweet and serene in
its influence to its friend, than any kingdom in history. For a man, rightly
viewed, comprehendeth the particular natures of all men. Each philosopher, each
bard, each actor, has only done for me, as by a delegate, what one day I can do
for myself. The books which once we valued more than the apple of the eye, we
have quite exhausted. What is that but saying, that we have come up with the
point of view which the universal mind took through the eyes of one scribe; we
have been that man, and have passed on. First, one; then, another; we drain all
cisterns, and, waxing greater by all these supplies, we crave a better and more
abundant food. The man has never lived that can feed us ever. The human mind
cannot be enshrined in a person, who shall set a barrier on any one side to this
unbounded, unboundable empire. It is one central fire, which, flaming now out of
the lips of Etna, lightens the capes of Sicily; and, now out of the throat of
Vesuvius, illuminates the towers and vineyards of Naples. It is one light which
beams out of a thousand stars. It is one soul which animates all men.

But I have dwelt perhaps tediously upon this abstraction of the Scholar. I
ought not to delay longer to add what I have to say, of nearer reference to the
time and to this country.

Historically, there is thought to be a difference in the ideas which
predominate over successive epochs, and there are data for marking the genius of
the Classic, of the Romantic, and now of the Reflective or Philosophical age.
With the views I have intimated of the oneness or the identity of the mind
through all individuals, I do not much dwell on these differences. In fact, I
believe each individual passes through all three. The boy is a Greek; the youth,
romantic; the adult, reflective. I deny not, however, that a revolution in the
leading idea may be distinctly enough traced.

Our age is bewailed as the age of Introversion. Must that needs be evil? We,
it seems, are critical; we are embarrassed with second thoughts; we cannot enjoy
any thing for hankering to know whereof the pleasure consists; we are lined with
eyes; we see with our feet; the time is infected with Hamlet’s unhappiness, —

“Sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”

Is it so bad then? Sight is the last thing to be pitied. Would we be blind?
Do we fear lest we should outsee nature and God, and drink truth dry? I look
upon the discontent of the literary class, as a mere announcement of the fact,
that they find themselves not in the state of mind of their fathers, and regret
the coming state as untried; as a boy dreads the water before he has learned
that he can swim. 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; when the energies of all men are searched by fear and
by hope; when the historic glories of the old, can be compensated by the rich
possibilities of the new era? This time, like all times, is a very good one, if
we but know what to do with it.

I read with joy some of the auspicious signs of the coming days, as they
glimmer already through poetry and art, through philosophy and science, through
church and state.

One of these signs is the fact, that the same movement which effected the
elevation of what was called the lowest class in the state, assumed in
literature a very marked and as benign an aspect. Instead of the sublime and
beautiful; the near, the low, the common, was explored and poetized. That, which
had been negligently trodden under foot by those who were harnessing and
provisioning themselves for long journeys into far countries, is suddenly found
to be richer than all foreign parts. The literature of the poor, the feelings of
the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household life, are the
topics of the time. It is a great stride. It is a sign, — is it not? of new
vigor, when the extremities are made active, when currents of warm life run into
the hands and the feet. I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what
is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provencal minstrelsy; I
embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give
me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds. What
would we really know the meaning of? The meal in the firkin; the milk in the
pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the
form and the gait of the body; — show me the ultimate reason of these matters;
show me the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking, as always
it does lurk, in these suburbs and extremities of nature; let me see every
trifle bristling with the polarity that ranges it instantly on an eternal law;
and the shop, the plough, and the leger, referred to the like cause by which
light undulates and poets sing; — and the world lies no longer a dull
miscellany and lumber-room, but has form and order; there is no trifle; there is
no puzzle; but one design unites and animates the farthest pinnacle and the
lowest trench.

This idea has inspired the genius of Goldsmith, Burns, Cowper, and, in a
newer time, of Goethe, Wordsworth, and Carlyle. This idea they have differently
followed and with various success. In contrast with their writing, the style of
Pope, of Johnson, of Gibbon, looks cold and pedantic. This writing is
blood-warm. Man is surprised to find that things near are not less beautiful and
wondrous than things remote. The near explains the far. The drop is a small
ocean. A man is related to all nature. This perception of the worth of the
vulgar is fruitful in discoveries. Goethe, in this very thing the most modern of
the moderns, has shown us, as none ever did, the genius of the ancients.

There is one man of genius, who has done much for this philosophy of life,
whose literary value has never yet been rightly estimated; — I mean Emanuel
Swedenborg. The most imaginative of men, yet writing with the precision of a
mathematician, he endeavored to engraft a purely philosophical Ethics on the
popular Christianity of his time. Such an attempt, of course, must have
difficulty, which no genius could surmount. But he saw and showed the connection
between nature and the affections of the soul. He pierced the emblematic or
spiritual character of the visible, audible, tangible world. Especially did his
shade-loving muse hover over and interpret the lower parts of nature; he showed
the mysterious bond that allies moral evil to the foul material forms, and has
given in epical parables a theory of isanity, of beasts, of unclean and fearful

Another sign of our times, also marked by an analogous political movement,
is, the new importance given to the single person. Every thing that tends to
insulate the individual, — to surround him with barriers of natural respect, so
that each man shall feel the world is his, and man shall treat with man as a
sovereign state with a sovereign state; — tends to true union as well as
greatness. “I learned,” said the melancholy Pestalozzi, “that no man in God’s
wide earth is either willing or able to help any other man.” Help must come from
the bosom alone. The scholar is that man who must take up into himself all the
ability of the time, all the contributions of the past, all the hopes of the
future. He must be an university of knowledges. If there be one lesson more than
another, which should pierce his ear, it is, The world is nothing, the man is
all; in yourself is the law of all nature, and you know not yet how a globule of
sap ascends; in yourself slumbers the whole of Reason; it is for you to know
all, it is for you to dare all. Mr. President and Gentlemen, this confidence in
the unsearched might of man belongs, by all motives, by all prophecy, by all
preparation, to the American Scholar. We have listened too long to the courtly
muses of Europe. The spirit of the American freeman is already suspected to be
timid, imitative, tame. Public and private avarice make the air we breathe thick
and fat. The scholar is decent, indolent, complaisant. See already the tragic
consequence. The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon
itself. There is no work for any but the decorous and the complaisant. Young men
of the fairest promise, who begin life upon our shores, inflated by the mountain
winds, shined upon by all the stars of God, find the earth below not in unison
with these, — but are hindered from action by the disgust which the principles
on which business is managed inspire, and turn drudges, or die of disgust, —
some of them suicides. What is the remedy? They did not yet see, and thousands
of young men as hopeful now crowding to the barriers for the career, do not yet
see, that, if the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and
there abide, the huge world will come round to him. Patience, — patience; —
with the shades of all the good and great for company; and for solace, the
perspective of your own infinite life; and for work, the study and the
communication of principles, the making those instincts prevalent, the
conversion of the world. Is it not the chief disgrace in the world, not to be an
unit; — not to be reckoned one character; — not to yield that peculiar fruit
which each man was created to bear, but to be reckoned in the gross, in the
hundred, or the thousand, of the party, the section, to which we belong; and our
opinion predicted geographically, as the north, or the south? Not so, brothers
and friends, — please God, ours shall not be so. We will walk on our own feet;
we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds. The study of
letters shall be no longer a name for pity, for doubt, and for sensual
indulgence. The dread of man and the love of man shall be a wall of defence and
a wreath of joy around all. A nation of men will for the first time exist,
because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires
all men.

(Visited 1,784 times, 2 visits today)


Live Video Streaming

ViewLive Streaming from of the documentary, Emerson: The Ideal In America

All proceeds go to supporting - The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Ideal in the West

From the director/author of Emerson: The Ideal In America

"Ide­al­ismthe old­est continuously-operating philo­soph­i­cal sys­tem in the West. 

Kindle Edition Is also available!

Emerson: The Ideal in America-Educator's Edition

Documentary on Life and Inspiration of
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson's house in Concord, MA

Educator's Edition, includes full interviews,
54 minute doc + 49 minutes of bonus material.

Emerson: The Ideal in America--Educator's Edition

Copyright© 2015 All Rights Reserved.