American Scholar

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Address by Emerson delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard (Aug. 31, 1837), published separately in 1837, and reprinted in Nature, Addresses, and Lectures (1849). Called “our intellectual Declaration of Independence” by Holmes, the work was immediately influential and remains important as an idealistic appeal for the active leadership of American society by Native Thinkers, developed through contact with the best products of former cultures and through free intercourse with nature and their fellow men.

The author announces that “Events, actions arise, that must be sung, that will sing themselves.” The original unit, man, has been “minutely subdivided and peddled out,” however, and “in this distribution of functions, the scholar is the delegated intellect … he is Man Thinking.” The scholar, following “the ancient precept 'Know thyself,' and the modern precept, 'study Nature,'” must interpret the distinctive new culture, for “Each age must write its own books.” Yet he must act, as well as think and write. His duties are all implied in the term “self-trust”; knowing himself and his function, he must be self-reliant and free of bondage to the “popular cry.” Society's purpose is to produce perfect individuals, and the scholar's idealistic mission is both to embody this perfection in himself and to make use of his divine inspiration for the highest good of his fellows.

Subjects: Literature.

Reference entries

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803—1882) American philosopher and poet