Ralph Waldo Emerson: Understanding “Man Thinking”

emersonRalph Waldo Emerson held the speech “The American Scholar” in September 1837, before the Phi Beta Kappa Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts. By then, Emerson and his transcendental philosophy had already become renowned in intellectual circles. A year preceding his speech, Emerson had published nature, a pioneering essay in the formation of Transcendentalism, and he had founded, together with other leading transcendentalist thinkers, the so called Transcendental Club in Massachusetts, subsequent meetings between thinkers who loosely shared common views as well as mutual dissatisfaction with the American academic climate.

Here, I examine the main ideas associated with Emerson and other thinkers related to the Transcendental Club in conjunction with the values in “The American Scholar”. The scholar’s authentic character, illustrated as “Man Thinking”, is central to Emerson’s speech. Accordingly, this essay aims to examine the way in which the constituent of “Man Thinking” corresponds with the philosophy of Transcendentalism. Further, Emerson’s emphasis on the completeness of man will be considered as ultimately being a reflection of his profoundly holistic ideal for the nation state. The primary values depicted for the individual essentially symbolize the aspirations that Emerson has for the American national identity.

Emerson’s purpose in “the American Scholar” is to inaugurate, essentially, a novel epoch in the American continent’s intellectual environment – an age of independence and creativity, free of foreign influence. An autonomous scholarly tradition must hence derive from its people, or, more precisely, the American scholar. Emerson certainly places the individual in the center of reality, and he unequivocally encourages distinctive ideals of personal advancement, intellectually and, ultimately, concerning character. Above all, the scholar must be valiant, free and independent, and these values are considered indispensable in order for man to become whole, demonstrated as “Man Thinking”. “Man Thinking” thus represents the scholar’s, and conceivably all human, potential. However, the individual is not an isolated entity; rather, he is an intricate part of his environment, although the source of personal completeness lies within the self. Emerson recurrently illustrates this elusive relationship between man and reality in his speech. He subsequently considers the scholar in relation to his main influences, that of nature, that of the past, and that of action. In sum, Emerson discusses the scholar’s relations to the world and his duties, and he subsequently relates this to an intellectual vision of the United States.

Emerson held the speech, “The American Scholar”, in 1837, precisely 60 years after the American Independence. This was likely close enough in time for the listeners to have heard first-hand accounts, in their youth, from the Revolutionary period and United States’ initial formation, but still sufficiently long ago to spur an eagerness for a definite rupture with their colonial past. Thus, it might have been an optimal time for Emerson to declare that “our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draw to a close”.

Emerson’s delivered his speech during a time of substantial emphasis on the nation-state, both due to the intellectual sentiments of the period and to the rapid industrial development, which effectively increased the connectivity between people and their relation to the outside world, and thus enhanced national unity. His aspirations for the American experiment broadly resembles timely perspectives on America, as well as views that subsequently have become increasingly conventional in forming America’s self-image. True to its Enlightenment spirit, America is portrayed as a divine project representing the future, and the values denoted for the American people, particularly its thinkers, are that of bravery and vigorous creativity. In the first half of the 19th century America was, in the rendering of Fredrick Jackson Turner, in the midst of the great frontier expansion. Half a century before Turner presented his frontier thesis, Emerson presented an expansion of another, spiritual, frontier – that of the mind, and it is the American scholar who is central to this process, as the intellectual pioneer.

Emerson is indeed pluralistic in his depiction of the scholar; in the right state he is “Man Thinking”; progressive, forward-looking, self-trusting and, above all, an active participator in society – a creator. In the divided state, on the contrary, he is merely a “parrot of other men’s thinking”. The purpose of the scholar is to become “One Man”. Accordingly, the scholar must unite with society, physically and spiritually. This is precisely Emerson’s ambition for the novel American scholar of his time. Yet, analogous to man’s potential to be reduced to fragments of his true self, the state of society might also degenerate. The scholar is indeed depicted as the source of the intellectual soil that will bring the society forward. However, in the divided social state, every individual has become limited to a particular profession and other deceiving categories – and not considered complete persons; they become “metamorphosed into a thing”. This might indeed be regarded as criticism towards the system of division of labor, which was prominent in United States’ growing market economy. In the “old fable” that Emerson articulate, man is initially complete and his labor is “the fountain of power”. Unfortunately, according to Emerson, this has been “distributed to multitudes”, and thus Man is divided into men. In order for the scholar to become complete he must be involved in many different occupations and aspects of society, and it is perhaps because of this societal overview that the scholar is deemed the “only true master”.

The holistic purpose for the individual is prominent in Emerson’s depiction of man’s relationship to his main influences and, ultimately, the nation. Emphasis on subjective experience and personal independence is central to all of man’s main influences, and in the construction and scrutiny of reality. Firstly, nature is deemed the most important influence of the mind. It is a duty for every individual to “settle its value in his mind”. Simply observing nature is thus insufficient; the scholar must sincerely understand the divine presence of this “web of God”. Emerson implies that there exists a natural evolution in people’s comprehension of nature; the young mind simply classifies entities, subsequently, however, the mind eventually starts to recognize objects as an intricate whole.

Analogous to the way Emerson’s articulates individual completeness as his ambition for the scholar – to become “One Man”; he also finds it necessary for people to regard nature as whole. After all, Emerson states, the laws of nature are equivalent to the laws of the mind. That is, a person’s assessment of reality has its foundation within the individual; every being essentially constructs reality in his own image. By pursuing the authentic wisdom of nature – as a reflection of one’s own thinking – people can understand their inner self. Man and nature are in essence counterparts because they derive from “one root”, perhaps comparable to siblings. Moreover, their existence is illustrated by, what Emerson calls, “circular power”. That is, nature and the human mind are boundless and eternal, which is a representation of the mind’s endless possibilities. The notions that reality is consistently interconnected and that the mind’s potential is limitless are cornerstones in Transcendentalism – and recurrent ideas in “The American Scholar”.

The past, in all its forms but particularly illustrated through literature, is described as the “next great influence” of the mind. Transcendentalism is certainly a forward-looking philosophy, which in many ways reflects the intellectual period of the relatively novel American experiments. Emerson’s assessment of the past in general and of books in particular demonstrates this brilliantly. Books are considered to be noble; however, analogous to the way society might disintegrate in its wrong state, books, too, might be corrupted if mistreated, illustrated with the “bookworm”. Prominently, books must be written by each generation. Emerson ascribes a great fallacy to the inherent authority attributed to books. In fact, the trouble with books is that man starts out from “accepted dogmas” – as Emerson brilliantly states:

“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.”

Emerson’s quest for academic novelty corresponds with Enlightenment ideas in general – illustrated by the perspective that the world is in continuous development – and that the United States essentially symbolizes this. Whereas the creed of manifest destiny held that America, because of the virtue of its people, where intended to expand across the North American continent, Emerson seemingly held an equivalent vision of an enhanced American intellectual life.

Further, Emerson’s reference to John Locke and Francis Bacon in his attempt to illustrate the fallacy of initiating from predetermined knowledge was, presumably, not an arbitrary decision. Bacon and Locke were early pioneers in the Enlightenment philosophical uprising, which Emerson’s thinking was largely inspired by. However, their epistemological outlook is profoundly dissimilar. Locke and Bacon regarded the mind as initially vacant, and that the source of all knowledge comes from processed sensatory experiences. Essential for Emerson’s transcendental thought, on the other hand, is the belief that knowledge lays within every one and that the source of these truths originates from individual intuition. Emerson’s epistemology – and how it differs from the rational empiricism of Locke and Bacon – is explicitly demonstrated in Emerson’s discussion of books. Literature’s foremost purpose is to inspire. That is, books should be used as a mean to promote individual thinking and thus, to assist people in their quest for truth, as opposed to being regarded as a source of truth.

Books, just as all past institutions, can be counterproductive because “they look backwards and not forward”. The scholar must be, as illustrated above, forward-looking in order to be the creator in his life. Even the creator might be “over-stimulated”, a term that many rational empiricists presumably would dismiss. Emerson exemplifies this by declaring that the English poets have been “Shakespearized for two hundred years”. Emerson further articulates the Transcendentalist doctrine of independent knowledge within each individual; when the individual can “read God directly” he should not waste time reading other’s people work. The universal truth that lies within human beings is thus apprehended as a divine potential, and consequently it must come from the individual’s themselves, and not from an external source. Emerson also has a similar vision for the American colleges, namely “not to drill, but to create”. Again, Emerson relates his individual vision to his overall vision for America. Ultimately however, books are significant because they reveal that people, from completely different times, share a reciprocated closeness, which corresponds to Emerson’s holistic philosophy.

Emerson’s initial articulated purpose for the scholar is to become whole, demonstrated as “Man Thinking”. This is unrealizable without action. Without active participation in reality the scholar is deprived from the beauty of the world, and consequently, the scholar can neither understand his own being, nor the world, depicted as “the other me”. Implicitly, Emerson considers the world to essentially be the construction of the mind itself, and to cultivate personal experiences is consequently equivalent to extending one’s being. Arguably, objections may be raised an to the seeming contradiction in Emerson’s declaration that truth is something “every man contains within him,” prior to the assertive emphasis on experience in the quest for knowledge. However, according to Emerson, the source of wisdom does not derive merely from being an observer, which can be ascribed to empiricism. On the contrary, the higher – existential – form of knowledge does not lie in the external world. As Emerson states, the world’s “attractions are the keys to unlock my thoughts”, meaning that it is the individual who must ultimately discover the truth.

Indeed, Emerson holds that the individual is in the center of the universe, however, people are certainly not alone in the world, which is an indictment ascribed to creeds of so-called rugged individualism. Transcendentalism emphasizes every being’s relationship with the universe, thus if people are isolated from the world, they are in effect isolated from themselves. Interestingly, and arguably inconsistently, Emerson refers to the world, but since his purpose is for America and its scholar to become cultivated and whole, the world evidently means America. Emerson believed, characteristically of his time, that the American project was divine and destined, and that its people and its environment thus shared a distinct relationship.

The influence of books and the influence of action serve as equal functions for the scholar; they are, in essence, inspirations in order to become “Man Thinking”, but not the ultimate source. Moreover, while books has the potential to “over-stimulate”, the scholar is urged to seize every opportunities of action. Presumably because books are exclusively external sources, while personal experiences expand the individual’s own comprehension of reality, and correspondingly, his inner truths. More importantly, books represent the past, while action represents the contrary: to be involved in and to construct the future. As a result of action, intuitive knowledge derives gradually, illustrated by the caterpillar that eventually transforms into a butterfly. Recent action differs from actions and events in one’s youth. It is primarily past actions that can be converted into tangible thought, because of their distance compared to a person’s present concerns. This is precisely the reason why labor is virtuous. Labor enhances life, and only through various experiences can man become complete.

Hence, the scholar should not simply be a thinker in the divided social state – as a part of the system of division of labor. Rather, Emerson declares, it is the individual character, and not merely his intellect, that has the highest value for, and which defines, “Man Thinking”. As Emerson states, “thinking is the function. Living is the functionary”. This corresponds precisely with Emerson’s holistic ideal which ultimately is expressed in man’s choice of living. Thus, Transcendentalism might surely be deemed as a philosophy of life. Whereas nature, the past and action represent the content of the scholar’s life, his duties constitute the scholar’s character. “Man Thinking” will not receive immediate praise for his work. On the contrary, the scholar must accept periods of “solitude and poverty”. Self-trust is therefore the essential duty of the scholar, as well as resisting submission to “popular cry”. The scholar’s emphasis is that of seeing the world as it really is, and consequently he must be a producer of ideas and a creator of a distinctive culture.

Safely within Enlightenment realm, Emerson implies that there is a cultural evolutionary progress between the civilizations, analogous to a person’s intellectual progress. His contemporary early 18th century America is deemed the “Reflective Age”, and he identifies the “new importance given to the single person” in his time. Moreover, the American Revolution is upheld as symbol of societal development; where the time preceding the Revolution is the old glory, subsequent America consists of the “rich possibilities of the new era”. Emerson ambition is to seize the intellectual possibilities of his time to influence an independent people and an intellectually sovereign nation. Man’s possibilities exist within every one, and Transcendentalism seeks to change society through its individuals. Because every individual has a profound relation to the universe, the scholar’s complete state – “Man Thinking” – essentially reflects man’s personal integration to his environment. Society can only become whole when the individual become whole. Emerson’s duties for the individual can accordingly be understood as the values Emerson seeks for America. When declaring that scholars must be confident, free and brave, he really states that America must be confident, free and brave, and resist popular cry – meaning foreign influences. Inspired people will be inspiring; hence “a nation of men will for the first time exist.”

Conclusively, this paper has consistently aimed to analyze “Man Thinking” as depicted by Emerson himself, and to demonstrate that this concept can serve as a basis for understanding Transcendentalist thought. Hopefully, it has demonstrated that Emerson’s holistic vision for the individual is ultimately a holistic vision for the United States. Transcendentalism seeks a philosophical revolution within the individual, and the scholar, in his right state, is central to the novel epoch in American intellectual history. Emerson’s main concern is individual independence, also from one’s particular culture. However, his purpose for “The American Scholar” is reflective of the intellectual sentiments his own time, in particular, the Enlightenment emphasis on the nation-state and the forward-looking ideal of persistent growth in human capabilities.

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