University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) was an American writer and philosopher famous for his naturalistic and anarchical ideas as well as his adherence to the movement of transcendentalism. Thoreau was a vegetarian, actively stood against slavery and war, and was one of the first who supported Darwin’s theory of evolution. Among his many works, the best known are his essay, Civil Disobedience, a proclamation against injustice and an urge for individual opposition to civil government, and the book ‘Walden’, where Thoreau’s reflects his personal experience of living simple life in natural environment.
Although these works, like many others of Thoreau, are considered ‘transcendental’ and had been published ages ago, the ideas and concepts they contain may still at some point be related to the issues we may face while living in the 21st century. In general, the core of transcendental beliefs is a faith into a perfect spiritual state of mind that transcends both empirical and physical. It can only be realized through the person’s intuition, not through the doctrines of any existing religions. Therefore, it is rather a philosophy then a religion.
The transcendentalism was grounded on principles that are ‘transcendental’, i. e. based not upon sensual experiences but upon inner feelings and empirical, spiritual essence of a human. (En. wikipedia. org) American transcendentalism was mainly dominating in the first half of the 19th century, encouraging to abandon our mundane world, establish close relationship between human and nature, and to concentrate on ideal existence through spiritual abundance and self-reliance. Henry David Thoreau was admitted as a co-founder of this movement not only for his great thoughts on transcendentalism, but also for his empirical ideas and personal practice of his beliefs, which was greatly illustrated in his most famous book, ‘Walden’.
The book firstly released as ‘Walden, or Life in the Woods’ (1854) was later widely recognized as one of the best non-fictional works of American authors. Living amidst woodland that belonged to R. W. Emerson, his friend and another founder of transcendentalism, near Concord, Massachusetts, in the small unpretentious self-built cabin, Thoreau mainly aimed to isolation from society for its better, more objective understanding. He stayed there alone for almost two years but kept receiving and returning visits. For example, he often went to Emerson’s hоuse for meаl and conversаtion.
Moreover, as he indicates in the book, the cabin was located ‘at the edge of town’, not in the wilderness, even not far away from his family home. Therefore, he focuses reader’s attention on the importance of human’s closeness to the nature, self-reliance and meditation. The book combines Thoreau’s autobiography with a criticism of society, namely American consumerism, materialism, and nature destruction, – the issues still common in our century as well. Such experiment of cut-off living was made by Thoreau for special purposes.
First, he tried to escape the negative effects of the Industrial Revolution through keeping agrarian lifestyle. Interesting fact, – the experiment was of a temporary character, and in the book Thoreau strongly advises his readers to avoid repeating it. Thus, anyone who studies Thoreau’s works has to keep in mind that at some degree they should be approached philosophically rather than understood literally. Second, the writer wanted to practically experience the main transcendental belief that every individual can transcend from normal to divine by means of nature itself.
Like other members of the movement, in the ‘Walden’ Thoreau, for example, speaks about Vedic concepts to illustrate his vision of the nature. “I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! There I meet the servant of Brahmin, priest of Brahma, and Vishnu, and Indra, who still sits in his temple of the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water-jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges. (Thoreau 221)
At some point, Thoreau’s attempts to promote the ideals of transcendentalism may seem to be impractical and rather inapplicable. In fact, after an in-depth analysis, Thoreau’s ideals may even look infeasible, namely his appeals to ascetic way of living and refusal of common human needs. In the scope of critical thinking, impossibility to follow the idea of living without any blessings of civilization is rather obvious. The average American who lives in the 21st century can hardly imagine him- or herself without Internet connection, using cell-phones, driving cars, or going to supermarkets. Nevertheless, it is possible at certain degree.
Moreover, due to global ecology problems, it even may become necessary for each of us to refuse some advantages of our daily welfare for the great purpose of saving the world from environmental catastrophe. For this reason ‘Walden’, as well as many other Thoreau’s works, is frequently quoted by specialists who work in various fields and are concerned with the environmental problems of the Earth in general and in the USA in particular. While the whole issue of bad ecology becomes more and more crucial, Thoreau’s idea of simple life in the forest turns out to be not as unsuitable as it seemed at first glance.
It is important to mention that Thoreau’s works on natural history is a great anticipation of findings and methods in the fields of ecology and the history of environment, which later became main sources of nowadays movement of environmentalism. In the book ‘Earth Rising: American Environmentalism in the 21st Century’ we read that “some 150 years ago, transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, sitting in his tiny cabin on Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, was already mourning the loss of the wilderness and the debilitating effect of industrialism on the human spirit”. (Shabecoff 16)
Thoreau significant influence onto the entire concept of nature preservation and conservation is unquestionable. “In the United States… the movement expanded in the 1800s, out of concerns for protecting the natural resources of the West, with individuals such as John Muir and Henry David Thoreau making key philosophical contributions. Thoreau was interested in people’s relationship with nature and studied this by living close to nature in a simple life. He published his experiences in the book ‘Walden’, which argues that people should become intimately close with nature.
The conservationist principles as well as the belief in an inherent right of nature were to become the bedrock of modern environmentalism”. The conservation movement is a political, social and scientific movement that aims to protect natural resources, including plant and animal species as well as their habitat for the future. Chiefly in the United States, conservation is seen as differing from environmentalism in that it seeks to preserve natural resources expressly for their continued sustainable use by humans.
In other parts of the world conservation is used more broadly to include the setting aside of natural areas and the active protection of wildlife for their inherent value. (En. wikipedia. org) Because of Thoreau and his associates humanity became truly concerned about the nature, the world we live in. He can definitely be called a pioneer ecologist. Numerous contemporary movements and organizations prove the actuality of environment problem and therefore significance of all Thoreau’s works related to nature preservation.
For example, his vision of the environmental issues in the 19th century became a ground for the book ‘From Walden to Wall Street: Frontiers of Conservation Finance’ written in the current times. “Why do we invest in conservation? Why do human beings invest their time, energy and financial resources in protection of land, plants, and animals? We invest in conservation because it is an expression of our faith in the future. Conservation investment is an expression of our faith in the future of natural systems that are essential to life on Earth.
It is an expression of our faith in the future of deeply loved natural wonders. And it is an expression of faith in the future of our families and communities whose lives will be immeasurably enriched by the living world that we are striving to sustain”. (Levitt 3) Here is one more evidence on how outstanding were the Thoreau’s works and what a great impact they made and still do. In ‘Walden’ he included a famous aphorism that “in wilderness is the preservation of the world”.
Thoreau kindled the Wilderness Religion that found fertile ground in America and provided a spiritual basis for conservation. In ‘The Main Woods’ (1864) Thoreau called for the establishment of national forest preserves, helping to set the stage for the National Park movement. (Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature 6) Despite of the fact that Walden is considered by some critics a failed experiment, the issues raised in the book are still of current importance. As 21st-century people, for instance, we suffer of consumerism and globalization, with their negative ethical aspects.
Thoreau’s prophetic awareness of them is amazing, they are as relevant now, as they used to be in his century. He rejects consumerism, its adverse effect on society with its status stratification, and still teaches us lessons vital for our survival and progress. Another kind of ideas Thoreau often promoted in his works are related to anarchism and civil disobedience. Thus, let us shift our attention to this theme of Thoreau’s writings and discuss how those fit in the American viewpoint of the 21st century.
In his disobedience to the American low of his times he was as prominent as in his attempts to bring humanity closer to the nature. He certainly was a key figure in the American radicalism. Disobedience was the main point in his endeavors to justifу morаl anаrchism and to encourage each individual to act on the basis of their personal judgments, their personal opinion about the very justice rather than civil regulations. Unfortunately, Thoreau offers nothing instead and relies of his personal sеnse of justice, which is univеrsal.
Here is the historical background of the essay. “’Civil Disobedience’ is an analysis of the individual’s relationship to the state that focuses on why men obey governmental law even when they believe it to be unjust. But ‘Civil Disobedience’ is not an essay of abstract theory. It is Thoreau’s extremely personal response to being imprisoned for breaking the law. ” Because he opposed slavery and because tax revenues contributed to the support of it, Thoreau decided to become a tax rebel. He was arrested and imprisoned.
It was short as a one night but has had enduring effect through the writing of ‘Civil Disobedience’ which has exerted its powerful force over time. (McElroy 2) In accordance with Thoreau’s ideals, the government of his days was far from perfection due to Mexican-American war and slavery expanded in the US. Therefore, the essay was written as anti-slavery and anti-war protest soon after the war’s beginning. Thoreau later wrote about governmental justice. “If it is of such a nature that requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.
Let your life be a counter friction to stop he machine… Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also prison”. (Thoreau 259) In the essay the author urges American citizens to show their disagreement to government by passive disobedience without acts of violence. Such form of protest was later used by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King who initiated movements for social changes. Thoreau was emphasizing the importance of acting upon the person’s ethical and moral beliefs.
According to Thoreau, “unjust law exists: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? ” This urge to disobedience is in tune with the message of ‘Walden’. Those who are not satisfied with the society should not obey its norms, and neither wait until the norms are changed, nor until the majority joins them, but live according to their own believes. Personal values should be compared to the ones of the contemporary society, and unless they comply, stick the voice of conscience.
Thoreau also said that “it costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the state, than it would to obey. I should feel as if I were worth less in that case. ” (Thoreau 258) In fact, many of the issues pinpointed by Thoreau 150 years ago have not yet been overcome by the American society, and that strikes the most. He hated its slavish materialism as well as commercialism and believed that “the state should never rank above the individual conscience or the business of living.
But if the state demands a person’s first allegiance by asking him to violate his conscience and participate in an injustice, the person should disobey – not through violence but by removing his cooperation. ” (McElroy 3) Thoreau foresaw many issues typical to the modern American society. Over 150 years ago he predicted the crisis, spiritual and moral, that now corrodes it. The writer still begs us to slow down our hectic lives, to review our values, and to live in harmony with our consciences. He repeatedly talks about the possibility to establish a society where the justice is appreciated and the beauty of the nature is preserved.