Emerson’s “The American Scholar” is more important than I realize. This is not to say it’s perfect. It reads like an undergraduate essay by an obscenely brilliant student. There’s too much to take in. The revolutionary ideas are—especially near the end—buried in a needless display of reading. At times it’s like reading Zhuangzi, at others like reading a dissertation on Daoism (the former being brilliant and gripping, the latter tedious). Nevertheless, his genius is real and inspiring.
Only so much do I know, as I have lived. Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not.
He is at pains to tear us away from a slavish adherence to books, while preserving their role in guiding us. Whatever truth is found in them is subordinated to one that is found in life, open to any who would engage it.
This is a bold, even aggressive, stance. Scholars pride themselves on texts—the more obscure and inaccessible, the better. And if they are in a dead language known only to a few? Then they are, perhaps, divinely inspired (and from here it is short logical hop, skip and jump to inerrant…). To wrest truth out of the bookman’s hands and lay it before the laborer is scandalous. And yet, it is also right.
This is not to say truth cannot be abstract. On one, critical level it must be. But it is an error for those who think philosophically to thereby assume that philosophy is the only means toward it. It would be like the geometrician who assumes only he can properly attach a rafter to a sloped roof by using trigonometry: he will be quickly disabused by the carpenter who takes a piece of scrap wood and scribes a line with a pencil to the exact pitch, without knowing a whit of the math that underlies it.
Forgive my turn to the homiletic: like Emerson, I will never be able to erase its influence from my writing. Let us go out and engage truth.