Thursday, February 3, 2011

Emerson on The American Scholar Part I

As I read in the Mercury News that high schools are eliminating electives, which includes the arts and the sciences, in order to meet expectations of "no child left behind" I find myself thinking that in trying not to leave behind individual children in math and English scores we are actually eliminating the prime motive for learning these things:  the joys of culture itself, and so we are really going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We become what Emerson calls "monsters" because we learn without going into the spirit of the thing, without connecting.  We learn math without its connections with science, and English without its connections to English literature and the rest of literary culture.  So in thinking about the American Scholar (the American student), rather than believing, as Emerson did, that we need to overcome our dependence on Europe and our overly mechanical interests (which are perhaps still present in our self-destructive obsession with rote learning), I find that today we need to somehow find a way to recover a true interest in culture, or as Emerson would put it, true scholarship. So our current position might be another chapter in what Emerson called the biography of the American Scholar.

Emerson has a unique notion of the whole Man, or what is is to be a whole man. "Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all...the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor and embrace all the other laborers"...otherwise we are "walking monsters."  The alienation of oneself from the other human disciplines that we suffer today means that "the planter, who is Man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the true dignity of his ministry.."  The tradesman is similarly "ridden by the routine of his craft" and "the scholar...tends to become a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men's thinking."  Although the connection may seem distant I cannot but help to see something in here related to aesthetics, not simply to the discipline of aesthetics, which all too often does seem to descend into the quality of the "mere thinker" but to the way that we experience our lives, whether richly and deeply (in terms of its overall organic relations to all aspects of society) or in a shallow way as simply having to do with the tools and goals at hand.  As we lose the Man within us (for example in no longer recognizing that the artist must also be a poet, a farmer, a judge and so forth) we lose any intensity in the aesthetics of our everyday lives.  This of course is something that Dewey would say.

In talking about the influence of nature on the scholar, Emerson writes "what is classification but the perceiving that [the objects classified] are not chaotic, and are not foreign, but have a law which is also a law of the human mind?"  I find it difficult to take seriously Emerson's concept of affinities between man and nature except as something metaphorical.  Of course part of his point is pure Kant, as when he says "The astronomer discovers the geometry, a pure abstraction of the human mind, is the measure of planetary motion."  Wow, isn't that magical.  As the same time, I think that we and the planets are both part of the universe:  we are closely related, and there must be something we share in common.  The problem is to tease out the metaphorical truth here.  When Emerson says that the beauty of nature "is the beauty of his own mind" (45) he seems to be going even further than Kant, who limits this kind of anthropocentrism to his concept of the sublime.   Heraclitus similarly implied that in searching out himself he understood the underlying logos.  Emerson thinks that in studying nature one searches out one's own self (by becoming Man?).  I do think that any deep search for the truth is one that finds the self within the subject matter and the subject matter within the self:  the subjective/objective distinction dissolves.  Perhaps this is the metaphorical meaning behind what appears to be scientific nonsense.

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