Richard W. Amero



Henry David Thoreau is not an easy subject to write about.  The main reason for this is a certain intransigence in the man and the complex nature of the problems he raised.  To begin to think about Thoreau meaningfully, one must understand his ideas for it is through them that he approaches and challenges us.  Behind Thoreau is Ralph Waldo Emerson and beyond him is Walt Whitman, a triumvirate of the optimistic and oracular spirit in ante bellum America.  Emerson started it with his speeches - The American Scholar, The Divinity School Address - and his essay - Self-Reliance.  Without these sermons and prophecies, it is unlikely that the other two writers would have reached their eminence, where they, in some respects, surpassed their master.


Matthew Arnold was right.  Emerson was an aider and abettor of those who live in the spirit.  He was not a great or even a clear thinker, but he was a great stylist and popularizer.  In his youth he enjoyed being a rebel and an iconoclast.  His ideas, hence the ideas of his two disciples, came in large measure from France and Germany.  The philosophical giants behind Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman are Jean Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.  From the first, the American writers derived the Romantic impulse toward a cleansing spiritual rebirth in the bosom of nature and from the latter two, they were able to construct a philosophical edifice ample enough to encompass their mystical insights and disparate thoughts.


Thoreau was not the first man to have his Walden, for Walden is the secret place where people go when they want to get away from social activities to pursue their private interests and to discover fundamentals.  Montaigne had his Walden at Perigole, Rousseau at Motiers, and William Wordsworth at Dove Cottage.  To Emerson, Concord was a Walden where he could experience life at its finest untarnished by the false gods of philistine and mercantile Boston. 


Kant added a transcendent dimension to the Romantic worship of nature which Hegel broadened.  Nature is and is not what it appears to be.  There are visible appearances and unseen forces.  To Kant the absolute essence of nature was Moral Being.  People had intuitions of this Moral Being which they could not explain or justify by the exercise of reason.  In the following quotation, Kant supplied the philosophical foundation for American transcendental thought:


It is difficult to suppose that a creature whose life has its first beginning in circumstances so trivial and so entirely dependent upon our own choice, should have an existence that extends to all eternity.  As regards the continuance here on earth of the species as a whole, this difficulty is negligible, since accident in the individual case is still subject to a general law, but as regards each individual it certainly seems highly questionable to expect so potent an effect from causes so insignificant.  But to meet these objections we can propound a transcendental hypothesis, namely, that all life, is, strictly speaking, intelligible only, is not subject to changes of time, and neither begins in birth nor ends in death; that this life is an appearance only, that is, a sensible representation of the purely spiritual life, and the whole sensible world is a mere picture which in our present mode of knowledge hovers over us, and like a dram has in itself no objective reality; that if we could intuit ourselves and things as they are, we should see ourselves in a world of spiritual beings, our sole and true community which has not begun through birth, and will not cease through bodily death - both birth and death being mere bodily appearances.[i]


To “things as they are,” Hegel added a dialectic motion.  To Hegel, Being and Non-Being, Matter and Non-Matter, Life and Death evolved continuously from one another.  Being expressed itself through a logical process known as Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis.  All material and nonmaterial things are incomplete and contradictory because they are fragmentary.  Every truth is a half-truth.  In the following passage, Hegel described his concept of never-ending dialectical progression:


But on this point I announced my view at the very outset, and asserted our hypothesis - which, however, will appear in the sequel, in the form of a legitimate inference - and our belief that Reason governs the world, and has consequently governed its history.  In relation to this independently universal and substantial existence - all else is subordinate, subservient to it, and the means for its development. - The Union of the Universal Abstract Existence generally with the Individual - the Subjective - that this alone is Truth, belongs to the department of speculation, and is treated in this general form in Logic. - But in the process of the World’s History itself - as still incomplete - the abstract final aim of history is not yet made the distinct object of desire and interest.  While these limited sentiments are still unconscious of the purpose they are fulfilling, the universal principle is implicit in them, and is realizing itself through them.  The question also assumes the form of the union of Freedom and Necessity; the latent abstract process of Spirit being regarded as Necessity; while that which exhibits itself in the conscious will of men, as their interest, belongs to the domain of Freedom.[ii]


Kant thought a moral sense and Hegel thought a universal law encompassed everything.  Nevertheless, men were superior to non-men because in them the great a priori “Idea” became self-conscious.  By utilizing his faculties of reason and intuition, taken separately or together, men become aware of the important role they play in the accomplishment of divine process.


The philosophies of Rousseau, Kant and Hegel produced more harmful consequences in Europe than they did in America.  These results show the weaknesses of some of their ideas as they were applied to American conditions.  But Rousseau cannot be blamed for the French Revolution, nor Kant and Hegel for Prussian militarism.  America was spared the horrors of the Reign of Terror, the Napoleonic conquests, and the repressions that followed the Congress of Vienna, so her transcendentalists can be pardoned if they cultivated only the positive side of the transcendental ethic.  Men must be rely on themselves to accomplish good for it is through their individual feelings (Rousseau) and intuitions (Kant) that they emulate the thoughts of the divine.


Thoreau is more interesting as a man than Emerson.  He had faults of character.  His thinking was sometimes reckless and his moral notions occasionally monotonous and tedious.  He had, however, offsetting qualities.  These included his whimsical humor, his friendly familiarity with nature, his warm empathy with life, and his wry eccentricities.

One can usually figure what Thoreau is talking about.  This is not as true with Emerson who is vague, grandiose and inspirational.  Emerson at his high moments is, to use an expression of Sir Thomas Browne, riding an “O altitudo.”  Whitman, also, in his mystical raptures goes far into the vaporous stratosphere.  Such is not the case with Thoreau.  His mysticism is grounded, affirmative and contained.


In a key passage from the second chapter of Walden Thoreau sets out to find the inner meaning of his existence:


I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.  I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; of if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.  For most men, it appears to men, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”[iii]


Thoreau mocks his seriousness by depicting humorously his quest for truth.  This selection and the one following disclose Thoreau’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer, thinker and man.  He describes people as pygmies frittering away their lives with nonessential details.  Then he advises people to subtract all that is unnecessary so they can come to terms with the small remainder that is pertinent and vital.  He concludes with a by describing the dangerous encounter of the railroad and man.  As cranes destroyed the pygmies, so the railroad will destroy man.  Man’s life is corrupted by external symbols of progress.  They are fallen, but if they reduce life to its simplest conditions and do without encumbrances, they can be reborn and redeemed.


Men esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system behind the farthest star, before Adam and after the last man.  In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime.  But all these times and places and occasions are now and here.  God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages.  And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us.  The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions; whether we travel fast or slow, the track is laid for us.  Let us spend our lives in conceiving then.  The poet or the artist never yet had so fair and noble a design but some of his posterity at least could accomplish it.[iv]


Thoreau was remarkable he offered people living and working in crowded cities an opportunity to become acquainted with naure as an ecosystem on which their lives ultimately depend.  He had his drawbacks.  Only misanthropes and saints would go to his extremes of solitude and orneriness.  Gentle though he was, Emerson was sometimes vexed by Thoreau’s wild appearance and assertions.  Whitman’s desire to embrace and to be embraced by his fellows was the opposite of Thoreau’s self-centeredness.  Whitman could have had Thoreau in mind when he wrote “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing”:


I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,

All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,

Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous

        leaves of dark green,

And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of


But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing

        alone there without its friend near, for I knew

        I could not,

And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves

        upon it, and twined around it a little moss,

And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight

        in my room,

It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,

(For I believe lately I think of little else than

        of them.)


Yet it remains to me as a curious token, it makes me think

        of manly love;

For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there

       in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,

Uttering joyous leaves all its live without a friend

       a lover near,

I know very well I could not.[v]


The harsh moralism implicit in “simplify, simplify,” and in the chapter “Higher Laws” with its restrictions on diet and its advocacy of celibacy are not for the general run of humanity.  Emerson’s and Thoreau’s ethic of being good by abstaining from doing good - a variation of Martin Luther’s “faith without good works” - is hard to take in a world of pressing social problems.


Political radicals often praise Thoreau because he refused to pay a poll tax, attacked the Fugitive Slave Law, and defended John Brown.  These acts of defiance are not as humanitarian as admirers of Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King would like to think.  According to Rousseau men are children of nature, but according to Aristotle they are social animals.  Their participation in the activities of government is continuous and does not depend on some chance cause which an individual decides is sufficiently weighty to override the laws of the State. 


Emerson and Thoreau wanted to participate as little as possible in governmental affairs, for their spiritual wealth lay elsewhere.  The sarcasm with they regarded political compromises was based not simply on their idealism, but on their lack of understanding of political processes.  Their rhetorical exaggerations cannot exonerate John Brown from his role as a murderer.  Self-righteous men are sometimes their own and society’s worst enemies as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville demonstrated in their novels and as the excesses of leaders of the French Revolution demonstrated in fact.


Still Thoreau is outstanding.  If his views on civil disobedience animate youth today as they blow up computer centers, this is not sufficient reason to reject the preponderance of good in Walden, The Week, The Maine Woods, and Cape Cod . . . good as literature, as humor, as observation of nature, and as a testimony to healthy living.


Thoreau did not possess the great secret of the Universe; but, as a man, he united many disparate qualities.  He was a poet and a naturalist, an economist and a dreamer, an admirer of ingenuity and a despiser of materialism, a land surveyor and a transcendentalist, a solitary who enjoyed companionship, a Saint Francis-like lover of animals and birds and a recorder of detailed observations.  To hold so many opposite qualities in balance is no mean achievement.


Even beyond his objective observations and subjective reactions, Thoreau provided people living in overcrowded and mechanized cities, working in automated and inhumane factories, seeking solace in commercial and moronic entertainment, and comfort in mass produced and shoddy goods with access to an invigorating natural world that transcends their shortsighted goals and limited achievements.  This is a world controlled by natural laws which people can neither violate nor surpass.


            Benign or malign, divine or diabolical, nature ultimately controls, and people must cherish her laws or perish.  Nature may be cruel as Melville intimated in Moby Dick and as the Marquis de Sade maintained, but nature, properly approached, can sustain and enrich as Rousseau, Wordsworth, Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman have testified.  In the language of paradox, Thoreau concluded Walden by promising people spiritual fulfilment:


I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapses of time can never make to dawn.  The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us.  Only that day dawns to which we are awake.  There is more day to dawn.  The sun is but a morning star.[vi]





[i].  Kant, Immanuel, quoted in The Western Philosphers, An Introduction, by E. W. F. Tomlin, Harper Colophon Books, New York, 1963, pp. 213-214.

[ii].  Hegel, Georg, quoted in The Age of Ideology, A Mentor Book, New American Library, New York, 1967, pp. 96-97.

[iii].  Thoreau, Henry, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” Blair, Hornberger, Stewart, Miller, The Literature of the United States, V. 1, 3rd Edition, Scott, Foreman & Co., Glenview, Illinois, 1966, p. 447, lines 27-37.

[iv].  Ibid, p. 451, lines 12-21.

[v].  Whitman, Walt, Poems, edited by Gay Wilson Allen & Charles T. Davis, New York University Press, New York, 1955, p. 183.

[vi].  Thoreau, Henry, “Conclusion, Walden,” Blair, Hornberger, et. al., p. 474, lines 38-41.