Civil disobedience would never be the same after Henry David Thoreau it became a mission. Although for Thoreau a sense of duty is not in a crusade to change the world, but to achieve authenticity for oneself. The injustice of the world is a consistent fact of the human condition. Yet wrongs and righting them seems to be the calling for a culture of altruism. How much obnoxious revulsion has been planted from the seeds of philanthropy? The disconnect from the essence of Thoreau has produced more branches of evil from social intrusion than substance for striking at the root. Was this man a philosopher of worldly fundamental nature or was he merely an icon for non-conformity living? Who is the Thoreau of Walden and what does his philosophy mean for our age?
His biography is well known: “Thoreau was born in 1817 and died in 1862. Like the existentialists, he believed that life should be lived intentionally and with deliberation, that is, by thinking about the meaning of life and existence. Thoreau personally accomplished this by removing himself from society and going to live at Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts, for a little over two years. There he lived simply and close to nature. His extraordinarily beautiful reflections on life were written while there and found in his book, Walden. He is not remembered as an existentialist, but rather as a transcendentalist, who puts emotion and intuition above reason in relating to nature and the world around us.”
A priori knowledge exists and is found in nature. But today orthodox relativism has become the social environment for any well-behaved meliorist. The notion that a cosmology of certainty is natural is so foreign to the culture for an obedient social order, that the prospects of a dissident philosophy cannot be tolerated. Alfred Tauber in the Bostonia concludes: “Thoreau dismissed the goal of an objective account of the world, holding that we must make choices and thereby assign particular importance to one kind of information over another. Facts were significant only in a personal context. Indeed, he used natural facts as a painter uses oils, to compose a vision of nature and his place in it. So facts revealed both the beauty of nature, and perhaps more profound, the moral lessons that might be gleaned from its study.” But does this assessment exclude the reality of a cosmic order or is it so because it is and that the relevance of facts becomes important when they are utilized to the way we live our lives?
When Thoreau says: "To be a philosopher, is not merely to have subtle thought, or even to found a school but so to love wisdom as to live, according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust", the practical application in living the way of life is more important than the speculation of the meaning of the point of view. This coming from an individual known as a most unpractical man, typifies the sensible method of affecting a philosophy into a society.
In Life without Principle Thoreau illustrates his scorn for worthless business endeavors in this passage: “The rush to California (1849), for instance, and the attitude, not merely of merchants, but of philosophers and prophets, so called, in relation to it, reflect the greatest disgrace on mankind. That so many are ready to live by luck, and so get the means of commanding the labor of others less lucky, without contributing any value to society! And that is called enterprise! I know of no more startling development of the immorality of trade, and all the common modes of getting a living. The philosophy and poetry and religion of such a mankind are not worth the dust of a puffball.” What he is saying hits to the core of what men do with their lives and how they conform to a crazed notion of prosperity.
Marianne Knuth argues in a review of this lecture: “Thoreau challenges - fundamentally - the values and aims underpinning our civilisation's eagerness to commerce and globalisation. "We are warped and narrowed" he says, "by an exclusive devotion to trade and commerce, and manufacture and agriculture, which are but means, and not the end." He asks us, whether we should not instead be placing as much emphasis and dedication to the mining of our inner being, of the spiritual man, as we do to the land, and our material welfare. "Cold and hunger" he says "seem more friendly to my nature than those methods which men have adopted and advise to ward them off."
In order to understand the transcendentalism that is inherent within Thoreau requires comprehending his self-reliance that enabled him to appreciate the resisting independence and integrity of nature. Like the natural world, Thoreau sought to behave by the same rules that exercise autonomy and achieve trueness to its nature. Ann Woodlief in a paper presented to Virginia Humanities Conference states: “The major premise of transcendental eco-wisdom is that connection with nature is essential for a person's intellectual, aesthetic, and moral health and growth. One must see and experience nature intimately, whether defined as the "not-me" or as landscape, to participate in the unity of Spirit underlying its visible processes. This connectedness is the basis of the self-reliance which determines how a person lives with integrity in nature and society.” While such an assertion seems consistent with the human need for spiritual unity, which allows for prudent social interaction, one needs to correctly distinguish the real meaning and relationship of the individual with nature.
If Thoreau became the prophet of wilderness for modern environmentalists, maybe the “Green Environmental” movement needs to reflect more upon the necessity for individual independence than about their social intrusion to save the planet. Nature can and does heal itself. Man’s contamination is much more than ecological pollution it is fundamentally a defilement of spiritual union because of human hubris.
The prominence of Thoreau as a dissenter often overrides his submission to the natural order. Alfred Tauber concludes: “Thoreau had no philosophy of "the whole," nothing to account for the individual together with his interpersonal relations. Indeed, the strength of his message is also its abiding weakness. He cherished solitude. Acutely self-conscious - of his social position and claims to professional recognition as a writer, of himself as an observer of nature, employing original and even idiosyncratic methods, and most important, of his spiritual relationship to the cosmos, which he at various times referred to as pantheistic, savage, and sublime - he made existential isolation a requirement for his pursuits.”
Well, the idea that an epistemology must encompass “the whole” to stand the test of scrutiny may well be superfluous. The quality that created the insightful awareness of the morality within civil disobedience was found in that existential solitude of Walden isolation. Henry David is a philosopher of social conscience. His importance is quintessentially American by nature. Thoreau proved that the eccentric is frequently the balanced voice of sanity. Reason alone is lost without the unification that often comes from the fusion of intellect with mysticism. Being the outsider often means – “All this worldly wisdom was once the unamiable heresy of some wise man”, so said HDT.
"Thoreau sought to behave by the same rules that exercise autonomy and achieve trueness to its nature" - I always thought of Thoreau as too anti-community. His autonomy I thought, was much too distant from a society that we find so enjoyable. In removing what he might explain away as something undesirable from the human experience he seemed to have moved away from those things that we love so much, that is to say, community. Natural for him I always found to be quite barbaric.
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