“The scholar is that man who must take up into himself all the ability of the time, all the contributions of the past, all the hopes of the future. He must be a university of knowledges. If there be one lesson more than another, which should pierce his ear, it is, The world is nothing, the man is all; in yourself is the law of all nature, and you know not yet how a globule of sap ascends; in yourself slumbers the whole of Reason; it is for you to know all, it is for you to dare all.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
Just 61 years after the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, Ralph Waldo Emerson offered a declaration of his own urging Americans to stop being “parrot[s] of other men’s thinking.”
The groundbreaking speech, later titled The American Scholar, is a treasure trove of autodidactic insight. If you’ve never read it, I heartily suggest that you take a look at the complete manuscript online, print out a copy, and get your highlighter ready. This one is a classic!
In his speech, Emerson draws attention to three ways that people can become independent thinkers and free themselves from over-reliance upon the ideas of others. In a nutshell, we must: learn from nature, study the past, and become people of action.
Learn from Nature
Emerson suggests that we need to learn from nature not simply for its own sake, but because learning about nature helps us understand ourselves:
“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. And, in fine, the ancient precept, “Know thyself,” and the modern precept, “Study nature,” become at last one maxim.”
As a bookworm, this is something that I didn’t understand for years. But, as I’ve recently ventured out to hike in the woods, plant a garden, and ride my bicycle, I have found that my understanding of myself and other concepts has increased in ways that simply weren’t possible from spending hours in front of a computer screen or curled up with a book.
Study the Past
Don’t chuck those paperbacks out the window quite yet, though. Emerson certainly realizes the importance of book learning. In The American Scholar, learning about the past is one of the essential steps of become an independent thinker.
How can we know who we are, where we came from, and where we can go if we don’t study the past?
Emerson suggests that we read the best of books, enjoy poetry, immerse ourselves in science, and master history. Studying the thinkers of the past can help us learn how to form our own ideas.
At the same time, we must always keep in mind the danger of becoming a slave to the ideas of others:
“Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system.”
Let the ideas of the past guide your own thinking, not become a substitute for your own thinking.
Be a Person of Action
In previous posts, I’ve discussed the revival of valuing practical learning and action. It turns out that nineteenth century thinkers were already dealing with the issue of non-practical, abstract learning and trying to find ways to connect scholars to the real world.
“Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth. 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.”
I love that last line, in particular. As a learner, I could always tell when a teacher knew what they were talking about from their own experiences or when a teacher only understood a subject based on shallow theories and assumptions.
Acting without insight and knowledge is meaningless. But, what’s the point of knowing anything if it isn’t put to use? Through action our wisdom “ripens” and we become ever more capable of thinking for ourselves.
Your Own Declaration of Intellectual Independence
If you’ve been as inspired by Emerson’s words as I, consider writing your own declaration of intellectual independence. Are you clinging to the ideas of others or held back by a fear of finding your own path? What steps can you take to more fully embrace your life as an independent thinker? I hope you’ll join me in considering those questions this July.