Commencement speeches are customarily routine, pedantic, platitude filled, mildly inspiring lectures. This description, however, was never applied to Ralph Waldo Emerson's oration, "The American Scholar," delivered to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard in 1837. Oliver Wendell Holmes called this speech America's "Intellectual Declaration of Independence." In addition to being a call for literary independence from Europe and past traditions, the speech was a blueprint for how humans should live their lives. Emerson believed that the way to reunite with the Over-Soul was to become "The American Scholar." He would do this by observing nature, by studying the past through books, and by taking action. To become a scholar, humans also needed to develop self trust, espouse freedom and bravery, and value the individual over the masses.
Because this speech is so pregnant with discussion topics, an intrinsic part of the blueprint may not catch the reader's attention or receive the analysis it deserves. It delivers a message that contemporary humans still need to receive. The startling, heretical admonition not to worship or make false idols of books and other objects of art, given in Emerson's "The American Scholar," demonstrates his belief in the vital necessity for self-reliance and active, creative reading and writing. When he exhorts us to live as a scholar, as "Man Thinking," rather than "a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men's thinking" (1530), he is cautioning us against the false idolatry of book or Bible worship.
When Emerson introduces the second great
influence on the spirit of the scholar, he at first praises books.
He expounds on "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" (1532). Emerson is saying that
books are the best vehicle available to the scholar for studying the ideas
and accomplishments of past men and ages. But after affirming that
"the theory of books is noble" (1532) and presenting an idealized way of
reading and reusing books from past ages by which "business" and "dead
facts" come out as "poetry" and "quick thought" when read and rewritten
in a new age, Emerson
The preceding quotation could be used in 1837 and still today to attack the teachers and professors in secondary schools and universities who woship the literary canon. Although few, if any, of the Harvard Phi Beta Kappas realized it at the time of hearing, Emerson's "The American Scholar" also delivers a powerful upper-cut to unaware, Bible worshipping idolaters. In addition to the Christian Bible, his caution against idolizing books from other ages would include all the sacred books from the world's religions such as the Jewish Torah, the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, the Islamic Koran and the Veda of India. Emerson delineates how man replaces a real event or action with its image or record which then becomes an object to be worshipped and defended against attacks from heretics:
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 wrong, who set out from accepted dogmas, not from their own sight of principles . . . . (1532)People in organized religion who blindly accept books from the past as sacred dogma not to be questioned will not entertain the idea that the writers were only men, asking questions and seeking union with the Over-Soul just as "Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries" (1532) when they wrote their books.
Bible worshippers or even modern worshippers of technology are not self-reliant. As Emerson suggests, by making idols of tools, they have become "subdued by their instruments" (1533). They do not think for themselves or read creatively. They are not making "life their dictionary" (1535). They have been "warped by its attraction clean out of their own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system" (1532-33). By relying on the idol they have stopped searching for their own truth. No new canons are accepted. This is what Emerson was cautioning against when he said, "Books are the best of things, well used; abused among the worst" (1532).
In spite of his doubts and foreboding about The American Scholar's misuses of books, Emerson loved books and considered them to be a great resource. He said, "It is remarkable the pleasure we derive from the best books" (1533) and admitted that "there is a portion of reading quite indispensable to a wise man. History and exact science he must learn by laborious reading" (1534). But he still thought that "books are for the scholar's idle time" and "when the intervals of darkness come" (1533). Emerson demonstrates his belief that when he can, the scholar should be seeking action and studying nature, thus making "life his dictionary": "When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men's transcripts of their readings" (1533).
Transcendentalists asked the questions
"What is authority?" and "What defines truth?" In "The American Scholar,"
Emerson cautions Man Thinking to be careful, to not let
any book be the authority but to read, think and decide for himself.
There is a fine line between study, appreciation and assimilation of books
and ideas from the past and idolizing these books and ideas. We must
examine, rewrite, create, learn from the old but write our own books
from our own time and experience.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The American
Scholar." The Heath Anthology of American Literature.
Ed. Paul Lauter, et al. 2nd. ed. Vol I. Lexington: Heath,