The American Scholar: Emerson’s Superb Speech on the Life of the Mind, the Art of Creative Reading, and the Building Blocks of Genius
“Character is higher than intellect. Thinking is the function. Living is the functionary… A great soul will be strong to live, as well as strong to think.”
By Maria Popova
On August 31, 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803–April 27, 1882) delivered one of the most extraordinary speeches of all time — a sweeping meditation on the life of the mind, the purpose of education, the art of creative reading, and the building blocks of of genius. He was only thirty-four.
Titled “The American Scholar,” the speech was eventually included in the indispensable volume Essays and Lectures (public library | free download) — the source of Emerson’s enduring wisdom on the two pillars of friendship, the key to personal growth, what beauty really means, and how to live with maximum aliveness. Nearly two centuries later, his oratory masterwork speaks to some of the most pressing issues of our time and his piercing insight into the cultural responsibility and creative challenges of the scholar applies equally to the writer, the artist, and the journalist of today.
Long before our era’s foundational theories of how creativity works, Emerson argues that the fertile mind is one which connects the seemingly disconnected:
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.
Echoing Goethe’s insistence upon the importance of building one’s mental library of influences, Emerson considers the singular value of books to the developing mind:
[A] 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… 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 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.
But books — like any technology of thought, indeed — aren’t inherently valuable; we confer value upon them by the nature of our use. To deny ourselves the wealth of human genius contained in books, Emerson argues, is to rob ourselves of vital inspiration; but to rely on books as blind dogma is to blunt our own creative genius:
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.
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.
Genius, says Emerson, is best nurtured by a balance of reading books and “reading” life — in fact, even more important than being a scholar by the lamplight of the study is being a scholar in the luminous school of life:
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.
And yet the pleasure of reading, Emerson reminds us in a remark that applies perfectly to this very speech, is unparalleled in granting us a sense of communion with kindred spirits and likeminds long gone:
It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books… 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 since the fruits of reading are ones we must actively reap, Emerson makes a beautiful case for the art of creative reading:
I would not be hurried … to underrate the Book. … 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… 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.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Tom Wolfe’s magnificent commencement address on the rise of the pseudo-intellectual, Emerson admonishes against mistaking the academic charades of knowledge for knowledge itself:
Colleges … 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.
And yet the true scholar, Emerson argues, is the person able to bridge ideas with actions:
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… 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 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 power. It is the raw material out of which the intellect moulds her splendid products.
He who has put forth his total strength in fit actions, has the richest return of wisdom.
In a sentiment that resonates with poet Sylvia Plath’s formative experience as a farm worker and philosopher Simone Weil’s decision to labor incognito at a car factory before entrusting her writings to a farmer, Emerson argues for “the dignity and necessity of labor to every citizen” and insists that the true scholar must acquire learning not only by reading but by living fully:
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.
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… The scholar loses no hour which the man lives.
With this, he turns to the role of the scholar in society — a role he sees much as William Faulkner saw the role of the writer and Joseph Conrad saw that of the artist. Emerson writes:
The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances.
But doing that, he points out, is an act of creative rebellion — one not for the faint of heart or timid of conviction, for those who insist on maintaining appearances will always push back against the tellers of truth. Asserting that the scholar must “defer never to the popular cry” — a piercing and timely incantation in our era of catering to the lowest common denominator of culture, where entire industries are built upon indulging the popular cry — Emerson urges:
In the long period of his preparation, [the true scholar] 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… 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.
In a remark particularly assuring amid the outrage culture of our time, Emerson admonishes against getting caught up in the fads of controversy:
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.
Free should the scholar be, — free and brave… Brave; for fear is a thing, which a scholar by his very function puts behind him. Fear always springs from ignorance… The world is his, who can see through its pretension.
“The American Scholar” is a timeless and enormously nourishing read in its entirety, and a spiritually rejuvenating reread, as is just about everything in Emerson’s Essays and Lectures. Complement it with Parker Palmer, a modern-day Emerson, on the six pillars of the wholehearted life and Susan Sontag on storytelling and how to be a moral human being.
Published August 31, 2015