Near the end of “The American Scholar” Emerson acknowledges attempts to classify different epochs in philosophy, while holding onto his belief that, nevertheless, there is a “oneness” and “identity of the mind through all individuals”. As such he does not spend much time on the classifications per se, though he suggests each person passes through the various stages. I have no idea the degree to which he was familiar with Hegel, and the fact that he is writing at the same time as Kierkegaard fascinates me, but what strikes me here is his belief that “this time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”
For me, this is one of many of his powerful, hortatory passages, and I almost feel a sense of shame writing about it instead of getting up from my chair and doing something to realize it. He talks about the shift in philosophy and poetry from the pedantic, antiquarian and artificial to the common, the shift from Pope to Wordsworth, as it were. “Man is surprised to find that things near are not less beautiful and wondrous than things remote. The near explains the far.”
While I not only understand but am supremely sympathetic to his argument, he is conveniently overlooking something that upsets the whole. For all their revolution in diction and parlance, the thinkers he cites as embracing the common mind were all men of high learning and privilege. I do not mean to take this in a direction that gets lost in the weeds of gender and power, as interesting as that may be. I only mean to point out Emerson’s blindness on what he feels is an important point. So much so that I would reverse his aphorism: The far explains the near.
That is, there is a difference between explanation and inspiration. While it may be true that one can find the depths of beauty and wisdom in the mundane, this speaks to inspiration, and here I am in full agreement with Emerson. But to exhibit these and explain them are not the same thing. The latter is only possible if one has the perspective of the far from which to do it. Categories, systems, history and language must be marshaled in an attempt to analyze. Questions must be raised, hypotheses tested, assumptions unearthed. By Emerson’s own argument we are too close to the things we experience to truly understand them. Even Emily Dickinson had her education.
This is the central, unspoken tension underlying the essay. It is too convenient to pit learning against experience, and to his credit, he does a good job of not taking it to an extreme. And if his goal is ultimately to goad a room of Harvard scholars to take their noses out of their books and embrace life, then he is to be forgiven. But immediate experience alone teaches us nothing. We can only react. Reflection, however, requires all the things that amount to learning: memory, reason, language, community, tradition, systems, schools and books. The challenge, if Emerson is right, is to not lose ourselves in them, but let them drive us back toward experience, open to truth in ever new ways.