I’m tempted to start with a grand statement about the historic importance of THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR. But you probably know that already. There’s a more serious question I have to address in this essay: does Emerson’s speech still speak to us? Did it speak to a moment and begin a process or can each generation rediscover it’s call?
I think that question has to be answered one by one. Does this statement speak to you or not?
The old fable covers a doctrine ever new and sublime; that there is One Man—present to all particular men only partially, or through one faculty; and that you must take the whole society to find the whole man …. Man is thus metaphormosed into a thing, into many things.
Does it bother you that you are defined by your job? Do you feel like you are something more — and that your defined role is sucking some of the life out of you? Our employer are entitled to a reasonable amount of our time, but are they entitled to anything more? Are you entitled to anything outside of your work except for family and leisure time — are you entitled to your thoughts, opinions and other callings?
I tend to believe that many, maybe even most, Americans don’t care about having an intellectual life outside of their jobs. They read little and write even less. To the extent that they think about politics, it’s mostly to speak their opinions as loudly as possible.
While America is in a continuing economic crisis, we’re in an even longer continuing spiritual crisis. You can call it the Culture Wars if you’d like, but that tends to reduce everything to opinions about the sexual revolution, as if that’s the defining issue in American life. From what I’ve heard, last night’s Republican Presidential debate featured a 30 minute discussion about whether contraception should be banned. What an absurd waste of time — why not use that time arguing whether the Mexican War was a good idea, it’s equally relevant to our political future.
My view of America’s spiritual crisis is that our democracy has become dangerously imbalanced. The national assumption is that only money matters, who has it, how some can make more and what we can do to make some things cost less. Americans spend very little time talking about everything that makes our lives worth living. Robert Kennedy spoke to this in 1968:
But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.
What Emerson spoke about in THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR mattered to Robert Kennedy and probably for many of his followers. During the 2008 campaign, it seemed to matter to Barack Obama as well. He often quoted RFK’s speech when talking about his economic values. But he doesn’t quote this speech anymore. Could he? Would Americans understand it — or would they call it “coldhearted” and remote from their economic concerns and fears?
In one respect, President Obama could not repeat RFK’s cry because they were words of the late 1960s, not our age. Emerson understood the importance of putting all discourse into the vernacular of their time:
Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this.
And it must be noted that Barack Obama did write his own book. DREAMS OF MY FATHER remains his greatest lasting contribution to American culture, a remarkably honest, existential book by a young man writing with far too much honesty to ever rise to the Presidency. And yet it happened. How? Shouldn’t people who write heartfelt autobiography in their early 30s keep writing and contribute to the culture that way? Emerson believed not:
Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given; forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books…. The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul. This every man is entitled to; this every man contains within him, although in almost all men obstructed and as yet unborn. The soul active sees absolute truth and utters truth, or creates. In this action it is genius; not the privilege of here and there a favorite, but the sound estate of every man. In its essence it is progressive.
Emerson believes that the great man is required to be active in his world and of his world. Too much influence can become a dead weight on his back. But even if President Obama sees something in RFK’s words that speak to him today, Emerson believed that he must chalk up these parallel minds to foresight in the original speaker. It is then the duty of the contemporary leader and philosopher to also look ahead and find someone in the future who can relate to his or her words and thoughts. And so it becomes the duty of the true scholar to relate to the world heroically:
Whilst the world hangs before the eye as a cloud of beauty, we cannot even see its beauty. Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind. The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action. Only so much do I know, as I have lived. Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not.
So Emerson believes that American Scholars (and President Obama is my chosen example) have a duty to do more than copy RFK and other thinkers of the past, scholars have a responsibility to set the stage for future Americans. It seems like the first task Emerson would demand would be for this scholar to call out the lies and misconceptions in our culture:
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.
I’ve used our current President as an example, but is it even possible for a President to fulfill this role? Perhaps Democrats made a mistake in 2008 casting a Philosopher King … perhaps Barack Obama would have been better suited to critique from the outside. This isn’t to criticize President Obama — the Presidency cannot escape politics, which is nothing other than the world of appearances:
The world of any moment is the merest appearance. Some great decorum, some fetish of a government, some ephemeral trade, or war, or man, is cried up by half mankind and cried down by the other half, as if all depended on this’ particular up or down. The odds are that the whole question is not worth the poorest thought which the scholar has lost in listening to the controversy. Let him not quit his belief that a popgun is a popgun, though the ancient and honorable of the earth affirm it to be the crack of doom. In silence, in steadiness, in severe abstraction, let him hold by himself; add observation to observation, patient of neglect, patient of reproach, and bide his own time—happy enough if he can satisfy himself alone that this day he has seen something truly.
Maybe a President can’t do this — he can’t shrug off a vote as being irrelevant or stay above the fray. A President needs to be engaged in the battles of the day, and this simply isn’t President Obama’s natural countenance. A President’s job is to help guide the national herd. A great, heroic character to Emerson (and also to Nietzsche) is one who calls for the rise of better men and women:
I believe man has been wronged; he has wronged himself. He has almost lost the light that can lead him back to his prerogatives. Men are become of no account. Men in history, men in the world of to-day, are bugs, are spawn, and are called “the mass” and “the herd.” In a century, in a millennium, one or two men; that is to say, one or two approximations to the right state of every man. All the rest behold in the hero or the poet their own green and crude being—ripened; yes, and are content to be less, so that may attain to its full stature. What a testimony, full of grandeur, full of pity, is borne to the demands of his own nature, by the poor clansman, the poor partisan, who rejoices in the glory of his chief. The poor and the low find some amends to their immense moral capacity, for their acquiescence in a political and social inferiority. They are content to be brushed like flies from the path of a great person, so that justice shall be done by him to that common nature which it is the dearest desire of all to see enlarged and glorified. They sun themselves in the great man’s light, and feel it to be their own element. They cast the dignity of man from their downtrod selves upon the shoulders of a hero, and will perish to add one drop of blood to make that great heart beat, those giant sinews combat and conquer. He lives for us, and we live in him.
What’s at stake if we don’t call for this heroism? So what if we remain economic creatures and consumers of entertainment? Emerson saw a great risk of creating a nation of soft, compliant people:
The spirit of the American free-man is already suspected to be timid, imitative, tame. Public and private avarice make the air we breathe thick and fat. The scholar is decent, indolent, complaisant. See already the tragic consequence. The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself. There is no work for any but the decorous and the complaisant.
So what can be done about this? Can an individual — a President, priest or artist — change the national character? Emerson was dubious. All we can hope is for individuals, one by one, to demand more of themselves and to stand firm:
(I)f the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him. Patience—patience; with the shades of all the good and great for company; and for solace the perspective of your own infinite life; and for work the study and the communication of principles, the making those instincts prevalent, the conversion of the world.
Instead of defining American freedom as something that entitles you to the opportunity to become rich, Americans can see their freedom as a gift of what Emerson calls “Divine Soul.” We have the opportunity to see the world in new ways and to envision a brighter future. We can’t wait for a President or a movement, we need to begin with ourselves:
We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds. The study of letters shall be no longer a name for pity, for doubt, and for sensual indulgence. The dread of man and the love of man shall be a wall of defense and a wreath of joy around all. A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.
If anyone still believes that this unique national call is possible, even for one man or woman, than THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR remains relevant and full of hope.