American Scholar and Enlightenment

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Both The American Scholar, by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Enlightenment, by Immanuel Kant, share common themes regarding the writer’s expectations from humanity. Both authors posit that personal growth is important, as well as the path of the individual in order to achieve that growth. While the positions of both authors are substantially the same, they do, however, differ slightly on the impact of society on the individual while they travel along that journey.

The first shared theme between the two authors relates to the importance of transition in the individual. In order to achieve the desired “enlightenment,” Kant argues that an individual must first emerge “from his self-imposed immaturity” into another state of being (Kant). In a similar argument, Emerson discusses the transition from “dependence… [and] apprenticeship to the learning of other lands.” Both authors describe the initial process of evolution from a starting point into a more advanced state of being.

A second shared theme between the authors is man’s flawed reliance on books. Kant argues that one of the primary reasons that men remain immature (and do not achieve their enlightenment), is simply because of laziness (Kant). This laziness is enabled by the existence of books, which he claims do all of the thinking for those willing to follow the text (Kant). Emerson also cautions against an individual’s similar reliance on books. He claims that the “sluggish and perverted mind” relies on books, absolving itself of the obligation to engage in independent thought and explore new ideas (Emerson). Further, while Emerson claims that “the theory of books is noble,” he also argues that no historian can author material that would be as “efficient” as the present-day authors can do (Emerson). In his text, he encourages the individual to use the books to inspire, and then engage in independent thought (Emerson). The common message from both of the authors appears to be that developing on the ideas of the individual, and not those of the historians that preceded them, are an integral part to achieving growth.

Both authors also address the problems of cowardice in society. Similar to his argument regarding laziness, Kant posits that cowardice is another reason that men remain immature (and do not achieve enlightenment). Instead of engaging in independent thought, Kant offers that because of cowardice, men do not progress into maturity because it is regarded as “dangerous” and “difficult.” He writes that much like the domesticated livestock, men have been conditioned not to “walk alone” (Kant). Kant continues that while the challenge to so not is not “so great,” men fail to attempt this task (independence) for fear of their own failures. Much like Kant, Emerson claims that, “inaction is cowardice.” He openly chastises scholars for being afraid to pursue public labor, out of a fear similar to that previously described by Kant (Emerson). However, Emerson challenges the scholar to dispel his fears, and engage in new experiences (Emerson). He writes that a scholar should be “brave; for fear is a thing, which a scholar by his very function puts behind him” (Emerson). In fact, fear (or cowardice) only springs from ignorance, and an educated scholar is just the opposite (Emerson). Both writers view cowardice as an impediment to personal growth.

Another similarity between the two works are the authors’ views on the importance of the role of duty and freedom in society. In Enlightenment, Kant argues that through freedom of thought comes enlightenment, making freedom an integral part of the transition away from immaturity. He writes that an individual’s enlightenment may be achieved, even among the most oppressed societies (Kant). However, he also suggests that because of the combination of a number of factors -- including prejudice -- enlightenment may only be achieved gradually and over a period of time (Kant). Any efforts by society to attain this freedom quickly will not result in new thinking (that is enlightenment), but merely in the establishment of new prejudices and a new limitation for a “great unthinking mass” (Kant). Emerson similarly argues the importance of freedom in the pursuit of becoming a true scholar. He argues that through “self-trust, all the virtues are comprehended” (Emerson). In applying the definition of freedom in the text, Emerson concludes that upon becoming a truly educated scholar, freedom is realized (Emerson). Without the requisite freedom, whether it be from old beliefs or society, the authors agree that personal growth is not be attainable.

However, while Kant and Emerson generally agree, the two differ on the concept of the role of societal restrictions on freedom. In his text, Kant describes “pervasive restrictions” on freedom:

But on all sides I hear: “Do not argue!” The officer says, “Do not argue, drill!” The tax man says, “Do not argue, pay!” The pastor says, “Do not argue, believe!” (Only one ruler in the World says, “Argue as much as you want and about what you want, but obey!”)

However, Emerson describes a different societal experience with freedom of expression. Emerson’s scholar is encouraged to share his thoughts with the society (Emerson). According to the text, the scholar will then find “that he is the complement of his hearers; that they drink his words because he fulfils for them their own nature” (Emerson). According to the text, the scholar “is the world's eye… [and] the world's heart,” and holds a true place in society (Emerson). Instead of being scorned for individual thought like Kant’s man, Emerson’s scholar is publicly revered.

Kant’s conclusion seems to suggest once the societal barriers to freedom are removed, and the public is increasingly able to act freely, this freedom has a reciprocal effect. An individual positively influences government, which (in turn) treats the individuals more positively. Emerson also concludes that individual freedom is important as scholars advance their thinking and share those thoughts with a sovereign society.

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American scholar.” The American Scholar. 3 September 2009.

Kant, Immanuel. “What is Enlightenment?” Internet Modern History Sourcebook. 7 September 2008.