What Was Emerson’s Vision for the American Scholar?

One can only wonder what the great Ralph Waldo Emerson would think of average college students today.

Jan 17, 2024By Brian Daly, BA Philosophy, BA English

ralph waldo emerson visions for american scholars


Ralph Waldo Emerson was a 19th century American intellectual figure most renowned as the leading figure of the Transcendentalist movement. While his concerns about truth and the real world make most of his ideas timeless, he was just as motivated to contribute to the cultural maturation of his nation. “The American Scholar” delivers some important elements of his worldview to describe the optimal form and function of the educated man.


Surmising an Intellectual Culture

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1857. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Before Emerson was a famous intellectual figure, he studied at Harvard and became a pastor at Second Church in Boston. In 1832, he resigned from his pastorship and set sail for Europe, travelling through Italy, France, and England. He journaled about his experience and publicly reflected on them in later essays, but the most important moments during his visit likely had an immediate impact on Emerson. In England, he was able to meet one-on-one with writers that he had grown to admire such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. 


These visits assured him that there was nothing inherently superior about the European writers esteemed for upholding the intellectual traditions of their nation. Emerson credited the faith these writers had in themselves as most important to their success. For him, it was important that his own nation develop a unique cultural identity and intellectual tradition, and now there was no reason to believe that America could not match Europe’s prestige.

The American Scholar

North East View of the Several Halls of Harvard College. Source: Wikimedia Commons


In 1837, Emerson spoke before members of the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard college. This speech, “The American Scholar,” expounds the essence of learning and its connection to the life of man. Emerson describes the complete man as an idea which society reinforces despite continually pushing it towards obsolescence; as society designates individuals to pursue one specific function in their life, conceptualizing the complete man requires looking at society to see all the different roles people fill to better imagine the ideal individual proficient in every area.

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Farmers, soldiers, lawyers, priests, and all other professions are reductions of the whole man, and the scholar is likewise reduced to only using their life to think, perhaps only contemplating unoriginal ideas. However, Emerson sees potential for the scholar to build a life closest to the ideal of the complete, ideal man, shaped by three main influences: nature, the past, and action.


Emerson on Nature

Mount Corcoran, Albert Bierstadt, ca. 1876. Source: National Gallery of Art


One year before giving this speech, Emerson published the essay “Nature,” which gave a comprehensive overview of his own worldview and the importance of nature in it, ultimately separating him from the Christian tradition. Here, he emphasizes the scholar’s dependence on nature as a source of new information. Every area of study either edifies a part of the natural world or gestures towards something real about the world and what it’s like living in it. As more time is spent observing nature and understanding the breadth and interconnectedness of it, the scholar becomes increasingly aware of how similar it is to the human mind. The beauty and order of the mind is commensurate to the beauty and order it discovers in the natural world.


Emerson and the Past

Colonial Graveyard at Lexington, Childe Hassam, 1891. Source: Smithsonian Institute


Emerson does not completely disavow the value of old books and the ideas in them, but he stresses how important it is to be careful with them as a source of inspiration. For him, books are best appreciated as representations of their author’s life which motivate the reader to strive for a similar level of genius. He is critical of approaching books only to remember all their ideas and accept them without question. Despite the abundance of intellectual giants of past times and all their writings which make it easier for the scholar to only look to the past, one must never lose sight of their own wisdom. A life spent reading and learning without ever using it to manifest new ideas would be a life wasted.


The Bookworm, Carl Spitzweg, 1850. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Not all subjects are equal in this regard. Namely, history and the natural sciences require a lot more reading and memorization of old ideas before a student is equipped to write something new. When Emerson acknowledges this, he criticizes the role colleges and universities play in providing men with their educations. As good of a resource as they may be, these learning institutions serve students best when they equip and encourage young minds to become innovators and creators. Without this, he says, “…our American colleges will recede in their public importance, whilst they grow richer every year.”


Action as Complimentary to Thought

The History of Labor in America, The 20th Century: Technology, Jack Beal, 1975. Source: Smithsonian Institute


Emerson sees action as wholly complementary to thought, and it is perhaps the scholar’s most important influence since it amplifies the benefit of the other two. Any thought, original or unoriginal, cannot metamorphose into truth unless paired with relevant or proper action, which in turn encourages further thought. Furthermore, action is necessary for the scholar to immerse themselves into the real world and live their life rather than just occupy it. There is always something to learn about oneself by engaging with the real world, though nature, labor, or even interacting with other people, which sharpens the intellect to a point that cannot be replicated in isolation. Without experience, the scholar can only grow as a man of intellect, not a man of character.

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By Brian DalyBA Philosophy, BA EnglishBrian holds BAs in Philosophy and English from Quinnipiac University and currently lives in New York. Whether through writing, teaching, or tutoring, he is always eager to spur interest in pondering and discussing complex ideas. His other interests include writing poetry, listening to music, and gardening.