Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American scholar, and the dangers of fear

A Liberal Dose


 A few more words about fear.

Every year, I share with honors freshmen an excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1837 essay “The American Scholar.” It lays out the civic responsibilities of an educated person. I have tried to live by Emerson’s advice, and I think every person - regardless of the amount of formal schooling they’ve had - should do the same. I’m going to cite one paragraph, in particular, as I do in class and then comment on it.

First, a little background: Emerson, like Thoreau, was a philosopher of the Transcendentalist Movement. They believed you should look for God in nature, that all people should be independent and self-sufficient in their thoughts, and that we should transcend the artificial restrictions of convention and what is “popular.” Here is the paragraph:

“Free should the scholar be, — free and brave. Free even to the definition of freedom, ‘without any hindrance that does not arise out of his own constitution.’ Brave; for fear is a thing, which a scholar by his very function puts behind him. Fear always springs from ignorance. It is a shame to him if his tranquility, amid dangerous times, arise from the presumption, that, like children and women, his is a protected class; or if he seek a temporary peace by the diversion of his thoughts from politics or vexed questions, hiding his head like an ostrich in the flowering bushes, peeping into microscopes, and turning rhymes, as a boy whistles to keep his courage up. So is the danger a danger still; so is the fear worse. Manlike let him turn and face it. Let him look into its eye and search its nature, inspect its origin… he will then find in himself a perfect comprehension of its nature and extent; he will have made his hands meet on the other side, and can henceforth defy it, and pass on superior. The world is his, who can see through its pretension. What deafness, what stone-blind custom, what overgrown error you behold, is there only by sufferance, — by your sufferance. See it to be a lie, and you have already dealt it its mortal blow.”

The scholar should be free and brave. If you are brave, you will be free, for it is fear that shackles people and fear comes from the unknown. If you are a responsible scholar, you face the unknown and try to figure it out, thereby gaining knowledge and ending fear, not only for yourself, but for those who listen to you. Both you and they will be free.

It would be dishonorable, on the other hand, for the scholar to hide his or her head in the sand and avoid uncomfortable, disagreeable, or unpopular problems to protect themselves. It is a shirking of their duty… and it only feeds fear and makes it stronger, in yourself and others.

Whatever issue arises, turn and face it with courage - throw your arms around it to see how big it is, figure out where it comes from, and you are already on the way to defeating it. If it is a threat, it is so only because you allow it to be, by not facing it head-on, which is your civic duty as a scholar.

“See it to be a lie, and you have already dealt it its mortal blow.”

One of the biggest problems, down through American history, has been our tendency to look away from problems, to ignore them, because facing them is hard and uncomfortable. For a scholar to do that is a betrayal of all they stand for. A lot of politicians want educators to ignore the truths of history and teach pleasant fables. That is not education, it is misinformation. It is a teacher’s duty - it is everyone’s duty - to be brave and tell the truth.

And we continue to do so.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.     


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