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What is Yours?


Most readers, it seems, assume Socrates is not interested in the realm of

action per se. Much has been written about Socrates‟ belief in learning as

“recollection,” but virtually nothing has been said about his views on human

action. On the other hand, Emersonthough he is primarily known as a

transcendentalist focused on the individual as a thinker--also explicitly discusses

the role of action in his speeches and essays. Interestingly, a close examination of

Socrates in light of Emerson‟s “American Scholar” reveals that the two

philosophers actually say quite a bit about the act of „action‟: Mental action,

action related to experience in the world, as well as action attached to duty.

Moreover, I would argue that a close analysis suggests that these menso far

away from each other in time, space, demeanorare actually more similar in

their views about action than they are different.

To begin, it is helpful to compare both philosophers‟ beliefs about action

by noting their responses to inactivity. In other words, both Emerson and

Socrates emphasize the value of rigorous mental action by vigorously denouncing

its opposite: mental passivity. Emerson goes so far as to call an idle mind


He explains that in a scholar‟s “right state, he is Man Thinking.”

When, however, the student/scholar is not actively engaging his full powers of

intellect, he is “In the degenerate state

the victim of society, he tends to

become a mere thinker

.” (Emerson 23). Emerson goes on to badly assert that

“Without it [mental action], he [the scholar] is not yet a man, thus “emasculating”

anyone in his audience who is not an active and engaged thinker. Socrates, too,

deplores the passive, uncurious mind. In his dialogue with Meno, Socrates


responds to Meno‟s frustration at being “torpedoed” after a series of questions

about virtue that have left him silent and confused. Meno begins to suggest that

the entire effort to understand virtue is futile. At this point, Socrates gently chides

Meno, saying

“a man [must be] strenuous

.not faint and

.we ought not to

listen to this sophistical argument about the impossibility of enquiry: for it will

make us idle; and is sweet only to the sluggard; but the other

will make us

active and inquisitive. In that confiding, I will gladly enquire with you into the

nature of virtue” (Plato). In this way, Socrates makes it clear how much he values

the effort required for active, persistent inquiry. But just as both philosophers

roundly condemn the passive or lazy intellect, Emerson and Socrates are equally

ready to passionately encourage the workings of the intellect in action, or what I

refer to as the “active mind.”

The question is, what is an “active mind” according to Emerson and

Socrates? To begin with what might seem to be the most obvious, Emerson and

Socrates agree that the activity of the mind should involve the constant, rigorous

pursuit of the essential, immortal truths. Furthermore, Emerson‟s ideal scholar

and Socrates‟ philosopher must seek and find truth(s) within themselvesnot

from external sources, authorities or institutions. As Emerson says with his

typical elegance, “The day is always his, who works in it with serenity and great

aims. The unstable estimates of men crowd to him whose mind is filled with a

truth, as the heaped waves of the Atlantic follow the moon”

(39). In order to emphasize his point that truths are found within the self/mind

rather than in any authority, even those considered “great,” he adds, “Let him not


quit his belief that a popgun is a popgun, though the ancient and honorable of the

earth affirm it to be the crack of doom” (Emerson 36). Even though the “great

thinkers” of the time may hear the sound of—and announcethe apocalypse,

Emerson‟s authentic Man Thinking can stand apart and know with the certainty

of his own mind that the same sound is merely a noise created by a small toy.

Socrates too, insists that the proper subjects of the active mind are

immortal truths that can only be found through the constant skepticism and

ongoing enquiry within every man. For example, in Plato‟s record of Socrates‟

dialogue with Meno about the source of virtue, Socrates is untiring and relentless

in his questioning.

I believe Plato is showcasing Socrates as a great thinker who

is trying to instill in Meno a habit of an active mind--- rigorous questioning

inquiry. This is precisely why he tirelessly questions Meno (and everyone else for

that matter). His style of questioning is always directed towards discovering the

timeless truth. As he reveals to Meno, “All other things hang upon the soul, and

the things of the soul herself hang upon wisdom, if they are to be


(Plato). And like Emerson, Socrates also believes real knowledge is formed (or

discovered) inside each man, not from outside influences. He uses Meno‟s slave

boy to prove that the boy already possesses knowledge without the need for an

outside teacher. After the boy had shown that he has the foundational knowledge

of the Pythagorean theorem, Socrates points out, “if there have been always true

thoughts in him…both at the time when he was and was not a man, which only

need to be awakened into knowledge by putting questions to him, his soul must

have always possessed this knowledge

.” (Plato). Again, the emphasis is on the


capacity of the individualoutside of the influence of other texts or teachingsto

arrive at important, essential truths.

What may not be so obvious to many readers of Emerson and Socrates is

that, in addition to ideas about the necessity of active individual thought about

the highest truths, these philosophers seem to share an epistemological approach

towards the proper role of thinking itself; that is, one that seeks to unify, to move

from multiplicity to singularity. “It is one light which beams out of a thousand

stars. It is one soul which animates all men

.one root

.” says Emerson

(Emerson 25, 40, 41, italics mine). Similarly, Socrates constantly insists in his

dialogue with Meno to find the single essence that lies behind many qualities. He

commands Meno to “tell me what virtue is in the universal; and do not make a

singular into a plural

.” (Plato, italics mine). Both clearly believe that authentic

questioning, learning and thinking must seek to connect all the disparate parts of

the individual functions of life and nature into a unifying whole. This approach is

the opposite of methods (in philosophy and science) that analyze a whole in order

to break it down into categories or types.

Having thoroughly discussed the philosophers‟ views on action of the

mind (and epistemologies) it is important now to excavate and compare their

beliefs about the kind of action that resides outside of the mind, in the realms of

life experience and of duty in the outside world. For Emerson, action in the form

of experience and duty is most often connected to a man‟s direct encounter with

the world of nature. He suggests that this kind of physical/intellectual/spiritual

action is not only essential to the scholar, or Thinking Man, but that it is part of a


larger duty to others. Only [by learning from Nature] can he truly perform “The

office of the scholar [which is] is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing

them facts amidst appearances” (Emerson 35). In other words, by experiencing

and studying nature firsthand, the scholar not only deepens his own

understanding of himself and principals that underlie all reality, but he also

raises the understanding and the spirits of other men, leading them too, toward

truth. He calls this “highest functions of human nature. He is one who raises

himself from private considerations, and breathes and lives on public and

illustrious thoughts. He is the world`s eye. He is the world`s heart” (36). For

Socrates, inquiry, experience and duty are also connected. For example, his

dialogue with Meno about the nature and source of virtue seems to rest on the

assumption that this knowledge is meant to be applied to actions and duties in

the world. As Socrates explains Anthemiona man he considers to be a good

citizen, the question of “wisdom and virtue” is one “by which men order the state

or the house, and honor their parents, and know when to receive and when to

send away citizens and strangers, as a good man should” (Plato). Socrates will

later refer to a man of true wisdom as a “guide to good action” (Plato). Of course,

Socrates‟ life itself can be seen as one of action in the world, whose purpose is to

create better men and citizens.

His vocationnamely, the pursuit of wisdom

through dialogue with others (notice Socrates is always depicted as a man who

moves in public, engaging other citizens in questions about the highest truthshe

is never seen as a man thinking alone, by himself) via the now famous “Socratic

method”—is meant to stir men to think and act for “the good.”

Thus, both

philosophers believe in the active mind, to be sure, but they see the active mind


as one that must be accompanied by right action in the worldincluding the duty

to help others.

Perhaps it is time to finally reject the familiar image of Socrates as the

“talking philosopher,” with all its implications of inactivity.

This is an image

that, if articulated today, might be described as a kind of poor bar-hopper, a man

who loved to talk to young men and had to rely on strangers to buy him drinks.

Perhaps it is time to put away the image of Emerson as a kind of “self-involved

mystic” who loved to hear himself speak to an audience with his eloquent

rhetorical style—that is, when he wasn‟t penning essays in a cold New England


As we have seen, those are figures who lack the complexity of the real

menwho clearly believed in the importance of vigorous actionboth in the

mind and in the world.

Rohit Chopra

Harvard University



Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The American Scholar, Self Reliance, Compensation.


York: The American Book Company, 1893.

Jowett, Benjamin. "Meno by Plato." Internet Classics Archive. 1994. Daniel C.

Stevenson, Web Atomics, Web. 6 Oct 2009.