Home  »  Volume XV: English COLONIAL AND REVOLUTIONARY LITERATURE EARLY NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART I  »  § 5. The American Scholar; The Divinity School Address

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

IX. Emerson

§ 5. The American Scholar; The Divinity School Address

Two of his addresses (now both included in the volume with Nature) deserve special notice for the attention they attracted at the time. The first of these is the oration before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard, in 1837, a high but scarcely practical appeal to the American scholar to raise himself above the dust of pedantries, even out of the routine of what is “decent, indolent, complaisant,” and to reach after the inspiration of “the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.” The other lecture was delivered the next year before the senior class in Divinity College, Cambridge, and held up to the prospective preacher about the same ideal as was presented to the scholar. Historical Christianity is condemned because “it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus.” The founder of Christianity saw, indeed, “with open eye the mystery of the soul,” but what as a man he saw and knew of man’s divinity cannot be given to man to-day by instruction, but only on the terms of a like intuition. The Unitarians of Massachusetts had travelled far from the Calvinistic creed of the Pilgrim Fathers, but Emerson’s suave displacement of the person of Jesus for the “chorus of thoughts and hopes” in any human soul perhaps even more his implicit rejection of all rites and institutions, raised loud protest among the worshippers of the day. For the most part he answered the criticism by silence, but in a letter replying to one of the more courteous of his opponents he used these significant words:

  • I could not give an account of myself if challenged. I could not possibly give you one of the “arguments” you cruelly hint at, on which any doctrine of mine stands; for I do not know what arguments are in reference to any expression of a thought.
  • There may be some guile in this pretence to complete intellectual innocence, but it is nevertheless a fair statement of a literary method which seeks, and obtains, its effect by throwing a direct light into the soul of the hearer and bidding him look there and acknowledge what he sees.