Creative Scholars

Ralph Waldo Emerson expresses concern for his fellow man in his speech The American Scholar. The concern is over “The state of society…in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk” (Emerson). American society is splitting beyond benefit, “the fountain of power” that is Man is best utilized in conjunction. Individuals are what makes up Man, parts of a whole “each of whom aims to do his stint of the joint work, whilst each other performs his” (Emerson). “Man is metamorphosed into a thing, into many things” such as farmers, machinists, teachers, or priests (Emerson). These occupations come to define the individual, confining one to a label that is only a slice of their whole selves. Emerson calls scholars “Man thinking” ; in whom “nature solicits with all her placid, all her monitory pictures; him the past instructs; him the future invites”. The education of the scholar begins in nature and within themselves before expanding to history and texts, and finishing with the scholar’s actions. The scholar serves their role like every other individual does theirs.  

Emerson writes, “Is not, indeed, every man a student” but “The scholar is he of all men whom this spectacle[nature] most engages”. He believes that everyone should participate in education and exploring nature and oneself to answer inherent human questions, but Emerson creates a distinction between scholars and everybody else. The scholars have a function that benefits from their being ‘tuned in’.

However scholars are not the only people to have these functions of exploration, asking and answering philosophical questions, compounding history’s works, and creating for the future. Artists do this and Emerson wouldn’t disagree. Like the scholar, “When the artist has exhausted his materials, when the fancy no longer paints, when thoughts are no longer apprehended, and books are a weariness, — he has always the resource to live. Character is higher than intellect. Thinking is the function. Living is the functionary” (Emerson). Both the scholar and the artist reflect and meditate on the world around them, forming questions and gaining insight from experience. Their learning in the natural world and within themselves can then expand the work of those who came before, and create new works for future scholars and new ideas to benefit society.

Both are “men whom this spectacles most engages”, whether that spectacle be the natural world or human nature, the artist and the scholar are best able to comprehend thoughts, questions, or emotions everyone has but do not dwell on or are scared to confront. Scholars and artists seek truths. The scholar searches for truth through research, contemplation, and questions. The answers they produce are their truths. Artists however search for truth within themselves and others, and depict that truth in what they create. British novelist DH Lawrence writes in Studies in Classic American Literature, “An artist is usually a damned liar, but his art, if it be art, will tell you the truth of his day”. The artist’s truth is different from the scholar’s. The scholar’s truth is explicit, researched, checked, and specialized. That truth is compounded on history, and more will pile on top. The artist may hide the truth without even realizing, not because they aim to deceive but because the truth is inherent in what they create. They soak up truth through lived experiences, and wring it out when they create through no conscious effort. The truth simply is.

With no requirement for history to expand or further research to be done, the artist’s truth can be easier to access.  There isn’t a prerequisite for it; the audience only needs to feel in order to know the truth. This can make an art piece easy to identify with, a universal depiction of truth. It can also evoke critical, misguided, even hateful reactions. In the essay The Creative Process, James Baldwin thinks the job of the artist is to present the truth regardless of consequences. “The artist is present to correct the delusions to which we fall prey in our attempts to avoid this knowledge” and the artist is “the incorrigible disturber of the peace”. The artist isn’t a necessary evil, but an unavoidable agitator that pokes and prods at what goes unquestioned in a culture.

Baldwin’s role for the artist begins in a place similar to Emerson’s role for the scholar; “the state of being alone” (Baldwin). However this state doesn’t mean both are isolated from the outside world. They are submerged in it, “It is the raw material out of which the intellect moulds her splendid products. A strange process too, this, by which experience is converted into thought” writes Emerson. Baldwin writes the state of the artist is “the state of everyone…The state of birth, suffering, love, and death are extreme states- extreme, universal, and inescapable”. From this universal, extreme state the artist creates works with a universal, extreme, and inescapable truths. “The state of being alone” is one of those truths, and people usually do not like to confront it. Racism, a theme in many of Baldwin’s works, is another truth that Americans try to avoid facing. “The entire purpose of society is to create a bulwark against the inner and the outer chaos”, to protect people from undesirable truths in their society and within themselves. A society discourages being alone because it cannot progress without people working together. Baldwin is critical of ignoring inward exploration and sees this as the primary task of the artist, “the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness…to make the world a more human dwelling place”.


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