ampersand header 
Misdirected American Democracy:
Emerson's Solution in "The American Scholar" 
by Eric C. Otto 
At the beginning of the nineteenth century an exaggerated emphasis on national and personal economic gain developed in America. Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of the nation with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, offering favorable economic opportunities from the boundless Mississippi Delta to the fertile soils of the Midwest. Manifest destiny, the belief that celestial design intended American expansion, spread among the population as the nation stretched westwards. National inspiration was found in "economic and geographical expansion, material prosperity, and the promise of continued growth" (Yannella 22). In search of their own individual economic advancement, many Americans began to fracture from their cooperative societies, justifying this action with the Enlightenment philosophy of the previous century. Enlightenment theory emphasized the natural right of the individual to progress according to personal goals, thus succeed economically by any legal means. The ideas of the Enlightenment as well as the aforementioned expansion of territory combined with Jacksonian democracy, in which all free white men were allowed active participation in government, to catapult American national and personal pride to its zenith. 

However, many of the literary figures who motivated the American Renaissance of 1820-1860 denounced the national and individual American sociopolitical motives. While the majority of the American population was comfortable with the nation's execution of democracy, a small group of reformers, known as the Transcendentalists, recognized that the developing system was flawed. The intention of American democracy was distinctly stated in the country's motto, e pluribus unum (from many, one), which suggested that America was one community created with the equal efforts of its numerous individuals. But that ideal was not blossoming due to the growing emphasis on individual economic advancement. America had many citizens but those many were not working towards one true democracy. The Transcendentalists theorized that this disorder could be mended through an improved form of individuality achieved through the knowledge of self. If Americans looked beyond economic gain they could bring forth an undivided democratic society consisting of citizens who are aware of the true and common aims of human society.  

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a primary figure in the Transcendental movement, openly criticized the progression of democracy in America, promoting instead a philosophy that shifted the nation of many to a nation of one. With "The American Scholar," he aspired to intercept the current American democracy "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" and substitute it with the Transcendental democratic ideal (1610). Just as a finger and an elbow cannot perform correctly without being members of one common trunk, a "planter" and a "tradesman" cannot succeed until they realize that they are also of a common body (1610). By emphasizing individuals' capability to, as Patell states, peel "away differences in order to reach a common denominator that will allow them to make claims about all individuals," Emerson attempted to unite Americans (443). Looking inside themselves and investigating the truths of their own beings, Americans would no longer wish to preserve their present status as a collection of separated citizens who struggle to exist as one country. They would instead create one nation, an unpolluted democracy that thrives because its individuals understand the universality of human design.  

Emerson felt that the ideal democracy would blossom when Americans willfully united with the Over-Soul, the universal and perfect connection of nature's creations, and realized the communal power that organizes humans. This was possible only if Americans recognized the insignificance of material gain. In "The American Scholar," Ralph Waldo Emerson focuses on the role of the scholar in communicating the possible reorientation of America's disconnected democracy. Through the appropriate use of nature, books, and action, the American scholar, who has realized that humans are one body connected with a common purpose, will activate all Americans in their communion with the Over-Soul, thus bringing forth Emerson's ideal democracy.  

In his essay, Emerson outlines the essential elements for the development of the American scholar. First, Emerson communicates the scholar's inevitable relationship with the natural world and the Transcendental learning process inherent in the observation of nature. Nature symbolizes the physical world, but at the same time its laws are the metaphysical exhibitions of the human mind. Emerson suggests that, through observing nature, the scholar "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" (1611). Emerson believed that, for the scholar, realizing the connection between humans and nature was a primary gateway to understanding: "And, in fine, the ancient precept, 'Know thyself,' and the modern precept, 'Study nature,' become at last one maxim" (1611). The American scholar was to direct America to a true democracy using the natural world to understand the common goals innate in all human beings. 

Learning from the past, conveyed in books, is Emerson's second objective in educating the American scholar to understand his or her true role in a democratic nation, but he issues a strong caution to the intellectual when doing so. For Emerson, books are simply records of the past, records that "Each age . . . must write" to inspire the individual to recognize the issues of the day (1612). They are too far separated from one's own personal experiences, and the nation's dilemmas, to be thought of as guiding principles in the pursuit of a true democracy. Emerson warns the scholar "not to value the products of creative activity above the process of creation itself, lest the would-be scholar descend into pedantry instead of ascending to his rightful place as Man Thinking" (Sealts 105). Books can easily be used improperly and in the abuse of a book, the scholar may be "warped by its attraction clean out of [his/her] own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system" (1612-1613). A book has the ability to remove the scholar from the Over-Soul thus, lead the scholar away from the organized system that is common to all humans. By intimating ideas far separated from personal and human motives, the written word, when misused, would not allow the scholar to unite with the Over-Soul, terminating the likelihood of understanding and achieving the ideal democracy. 

In an effort to further strengthen the ability to teach all Americans about the Over-Soul and the goals of a true democracy, Emerson introduces a third principle, the value of action, into the education of the American scholar. Action "is the raw material out of which the intellect moulds her splendid products" (1614). Education, for Emerson, is not merely the transmission of assumptions from generation to generation. Ideally, education includes the possibility for thought to pass from the unconscious, educated mind, to the conscious mind of action. Only through action can the scholar present the motives of a true democracy to other Americans. "The true scholar," says Emerson, "grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power" (1614). In living actively with his or her own character, "A great soul will be strong to live, as well as strong to think" (1616). The efficacy of action is demonstrable in its ability to guide the scholar, and those the scholar influences, to an awareness that he or she is a member of a universal community and that the community is in fact one interconnected essence, a true democracy.  

Emerson's concern for the fragmentation that spawned from America's misdirected democracy leads to his Transcendental philosophy. He writes, "Is it not the chief disgrace in the world, not to be an unit; -- not to be reckoned one character . . .?" (1621). As Lyttle has remarked, for Emerson, "The motivation for social concern and action . . . [is] neither self-interest nor humanitarian sentiments, but the reality that we are each other" (93). In Emerson's visionary state, economic and geographic growth will be important only for the good of a healthy nation. Material wealth will prove insignificant to a nation of individuals who recognize that their contributions to society are equal and necessary in fulfilling a true democracy. Only by constructing the Emersonian model outlined in "The American Scholar," in which the scholar is conscious of his or her duties to guide Americans to universal understanding, will individuals envision and create a true democracy and "A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men" (1621). And only by recognizing that each human mind carries the "secrets of all minds" can Emerson's intended sociopolitical reorientation, the ideal democracy, come to fruition, thus bringing together a society divided by economic gain and making many progress as one (1617).  

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph W. "The American Scholar." 1837. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter, et al. 3rd ed. Vol. 1. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. 1609-1621. 

Lyttle, David. "Emerson's Transcendental Individualism." The Concord Saunterer 3 (Fall 1995): 87-103. 

Patell, Cyrus R. K. "Emersonean Strategies: Negative Liberty, Self-Reliance, and Democratic Individuality." Nineteenth-Century Literature 48 (March 1994): 440-479. 

Sealts, Merton M. Emerson on the Scholar. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1992. 

Yannella, Donald. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston: Twayne, 1982. 


Return to Top.
Return to Index Page.
© FGCU CAS 1998, Fort Myers, FL.
This is an official web page of Florida Gulf Coast University.
Updated 13 January 1998.
Webmaster: Dr. Jim Wohlpart