August 31, 2012

Emerson: we will speak our own minds

Delivered as an oration before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard College on August 31, 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson's speech "The American Scholar" was hailed almost immediately as a turning point in American cultural history. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who witnessed Emerson's speech that day, called it the "intellectual" Declaration of Independence (others, incidentally, were not as impressed right away).

Emerson begins by noting the group is made of lovers of letters, who seldom have time to write. The "sluggard intellect" of the continent has been hampered, but he foresees that poetry and other intellectual pursuits will be revived and lead the country into a new age. Put into categories like "farmer," men lose the sense that they are men. In this distribution of functions, the scholar is the delegated intellect. But, he says, "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."

The speech details the education of the scholar as in three parts: nature, books, and action. He also breaks down the duties he expects of the American scholar. Even if he is shunned from society and becomes stricken with poverty and solitude, Emerson insists his role is too important:

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.

To be imaginative is a part of being intellectual, Emerson says, and he demands a new importance be granted to individuals as part of the larger whole. Further, he says that intellectualism in this country must stay true to America: "We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe." The assumption is that the American mind is too tame, timid, or imitative. With the next generation of intellectuals before him, Emerson predicts, "We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds."

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