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6. Thoreau's Moral Universe

Our whole life is startlingly moral.

Walden, 1971, p. 218

What is Thoreau's enduring moral appeal? That question generates responses that revolve around many issues: the first, and the most accessible, pertains to his formative effect on modern environmentalism. In many respects he set that agenda. His genre of nature writing became an exploration of the unstable relationship between the wild and the pastoral; of the predicament of defining or constructing nature; of the metaphysical placement of the self in the universe. Thoreau relentlessly pursued these issues with an honesty and poignancy unique and powerfully evocative. To get to know Thoreau is to achieve an enriching dialogue, and to know him well is to engage a worthy confidant to explore these matters. But more than as a premier American naturalist, an admirer and chronicler of natural history, Thoreau was philosophically selfconscious in these pursuits. This introspective cognizance reflects a deeper source of inquiry as he engaged in perplexing and oftentimes agonizing meditations on his personhood and the meaning of his life in the context of nature.

This leads to the darker side of Thoreau's moral vision, one that dates to the birth of the social universe. How does one balance the interests of the individual with that of the community in which he lives? From Antigone to our present day, this question has been at the heart of ethics, and Thoreau's response is noteworthy for the adamant and uncompromising primacy he gives the individual. The moral vision which so guided his life was derived from an inner sense of his own personhood, the preservation of his own autonomy, the sanctity of his selfdetermined choice. In the end, Thoreau's moral philosophy is dangerously solipsistic; narcissistic to the extreme, Thoreau's morality was built from the precept that the protection of his autonomy was the crucial and abiding parameter of moral action. In striving for that independence, Thoreau erected a universe around himself.


Belying the mystical aspirations, Thoreau's selfconscious appraisal of the world and himself left him selfcontained and thus often isolated from the larger communal universe in which ethics are ultimately enacted.

Thoreau effectively exercised his perspectivism to bring his nature writing to a new standard of literary achievement. And in his history writing, we discussed how he engaged and reconstructed the “radically irrecoverable pastness” (Krell 1990, p. 7) into his own vision that prefigures much of our own historiography. I have stressed the personal imprimatur with which Thoreau stamps each project, for in each instance the moment of creation can only be reenactment, and ipso facto “the whole performance of writing becomes such a reenactment” (Hansen 1990, p. 135). In both genres, Thoreau's imagination celebrates his vantage on the world and time, and he fashioned narratives of vitality and verve that in the process affirmed—and defined—his own selfhood. Indeed, we might note a strong resonance between the writing of a history of culture and autobiography, for both are, in fact must be, cohered by what Husserl called “the hidden unity of intentional inwardness which alone constitutes the unity of history” ([1935] 1970, p. 73). But there was, of course, a high cost for this independence and individuality. Thoreau suffered the throes of isolation and was keenly aware, in this second aspect, of a solitude based on the divide of knowledge—moral and otherwise—separating him from his fellow citizens. The poignancy of writing to himself about his existential solitude speaks volumes:

The stars go up and down before my only eye–Seasons come round to me alone. I cannot lean so hard on any arm as on a sunbeam–So solid men are not to my sincerity as is the shimmer of the fields. (March 17, 1841,Journal 1, 1981, p. 289)

This is not simply a theme of a disaffected youth but one that continued to haunt him. As he confided to his Journal during the Walden period, he, at the very least, felt sequestered from any true sharing of experience:

No man lives in the world which I inhabit—or ever came rambling into it–Nor did I ever journey in any other man's–Our differences have frequently such foundation as if venus should roll quite near to the orbit of the earth one day—and two inhabitants of the respective planets should take the opportunity to lecture one another[.] (December 2, 1846,Journal 2, 1984, p. 355)

Thoreau did not always feel so despondent (see, e.g., May 21, 1851,Journal 3, 1990, p. 229), and his entire literary output as a public activity belies this assertion; but at the same time he was all too aware of the difficulty, and at times the futility, of communicating his experience and, more to the point,

of having others take him seriously in the full force of his argument. He struggled alone.[1]

Thoreau responded to his isolation by both further retreating into a world of his own making, a place in nature (or what he described as having “a room all to myself; it is Nature … a prairie for outlaws” [January 3, 1853, Journal 5, 1997, p. 422]), and also by reaching out to the world of men by writing a grand, albeit idiosyncratic, autobiography. The everdominant “I” of Walden, the vigilant observer and commentator of the essays,A Week, Cape Cod, and The Maine Woods, the introspective Journal, all attest to a vast attempt to reach to another—the listening ego of Thoreau's splitscreen consciousness. Indeed, in the “Solitude” chapter of Walden, Thoreau forthrightly uncovers the deepest stratum of his isolation, which is neither emotional (i.e., psychological) nor social, but rather metaphysical, the solitude of the core self, which he refers to as his “doubleness” (already discussed in the previous chapter): “I only know myself as a human entity; and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another” (Walden, 1971, p. 135; written in somewhat different form in the Journal, August 8, 1852,[1906] 1962, 4:291). One might hear this statement as an early voice of existentialism if Thoreau had lingered peering at himself as some sort of post—World War II French literary character, pondering his alienation and ennui. But after acknowledging this existential solitude, Thoreau marched on with purpose and selfassertion, capturing his dual identity as it voiced its musings and doings of a man in constant dialogue with himself.

Thoreau recognized how the self might be imprisoned by its selfness, and in the Romantic tradition of actualizing in the context of the other, he relentlessly pursued a transfiguration, which would exchange his autonomous self for one whose boundaries have been blurred in the communion with nature. But there is an unresolved tension between an expansive, expressive view of the person, and the selfactualization of an autonomous entity. So on the one hand there is a circumscribed character to the self, where a moral mandate defines the telos of one's development; and on the other hand, the entity cannot be defined in any circumscribed fashion. In short, there are competing claims for the self—one of independence and one of responsibility; one based on autonomy, the other on relation. Thus the Romantics' preoccupation with the psychological independence of the individual also inherited the Enlightenment tradition of relegating responsibility and freedom to a selfgoverning ethical agent. Obviously, adherence to a divinely inspired moral code characterizing this latter case long predates the Romantic reaction that asserted the primacy of the “expressive

self,” the pronouncement of selfwill, and the ethical essentiality of the autonomous moral agent. In many ways, the declaration of the self, the free spirit, the actualizing individual characterizing the age of Byron, Keats, and Shelley, made strong claims on an earlier vision of the autonomous self, but now the contours of that agent were elusive and obscure. And it is here that we must search for Thoreau's moral agent and its vision.


How to observe is how to behave.

Thoreau, March 23, 1853, Journal, [1906] 1962, 5:45

[E]ach of us literally chooses, by his ways of attending to things, what sort of universe he shall appear himself to inhabit.

William James [1890] 1983, p. 401

Much of my discussion has been based on a persistent yet unarticulated view of Thoreau's moral philosophy. Here I wish to outline its configuration explicitly. The foundation is the exercise of self-determination, the Romantic mandate to build the self from within in the face of the challenge of “the other.” He was thus beholden to Fichte's notion of “selfpositing,” which by these lights is fundamentally moral:

Ethics thus considers the object of consciousness not as something given or even constructed by necessary laws of consciousness, but rather as something to be produced by a freely acting subject, consciously striving to establish and to accomplish its own goals. The specific task of Fichte's ethics is therefore to deduce from the general obligation to determine oneself freely the particular obligations of every finite rational being.

Viewed from the perspective of practical philosophy, the world really is nothing more than what Fichte once described as “the material of our duty made sensible,” which is precisely the viewpoint adopted by the morally engaged, practically striving subject. (Breazeale 1998, p. 650)

So in this fashion, Thoreau's moral project might be seen in the same way Nietzsche was to construct his own forty years later:[2] Self-Responsibility as moral action is grounded in itself; moreover, that self is always striving toward some ideal of itself. Self-Consciousness then becomes moral as actions are scrutinized as meaningful and ethically significant. Selfawareness is not only a virtue: it is the origin of morality. But there is a more social or public aspect to Thoreau's ethics, one that in many ways is traditionally ethical and conforms to a moral system that is less abstract and better articulated

as a course of action. I will explicate that program by describing its major tenets in terms of virtue ethics and then return to assessing the success of such a construction.

What was virtue for Thoreau? This is a complex issue, for he offered no succinct pronouncement that might guide us. In fact, one might easily argue that Thoreau's entire life's work might be regarded as a project in virtue ethics. Virtue ethics revolve around the idea of the “good life.” There are, to be sure, many ways in which a happy and good life has been defined. Consider, for instance, Homeric arete (excellence), Socratic selfknowledge, Aristotelian friendship and phronesis (wisely applied knowledge, practical wisdom), Christian faith, hope, and love. Plato advised turning our attention to the idea of pure Goodness, which might guide our own lives through disciplined attention to purification of the intellect and passions. Augustine believed that only divine grace might bestow the power to act virtuously, but he advised that prayer and a contemplative religious life would help achieve such grace. Kant argued that virtuous people act precisely from, and because of, respect for moral law which is universalizable. Knights of the Round Table and Victorian gentlemen had their respective codes for a life of virtue, and our own era seems to have evolved to the position that in a pluralistic society virtue comes in various forms and standards, of which tolerance of diversity is itself a cardinal virtue. Indeed, each era and culture has adopted a set of virtues which might even characterize that society. What standards are then applied remains a perplexing quandary for moral theorists. There seemingly are no core virtues or even a unity to the concept. There is simply too much variation in the history of social orders and accompanying philosophical theories to suggest a coherent “doctrine” of virtue.

Nevertheless, Alisdair MacIntyre (1985) does offers us a conceptual scaffolding by which we might understand the nature of virtue, and from this point we can turn to Thoreau's own venture. MacIntyre's approach is to glean from the history of ethics the major conceptions of virtue and then search for an underlying conceptual structure that may hold them all (1985, chap. 14). To be sure, virtue has served as a quality which 1) enables an individual to discharge his or her social role (Homer); 2) makes possible the achievement of a specifically human telos, whether natural or supernatural (Aristotle, Christianity); and 3) enables one to attain earthly and heavenly success. To bring these characteristics together, MacIntyre argues that virtue must rest on character and that character in turn must rest on a common sense of the meaning and purpose of life which is firmly lodged in the philosophical and religious tradition of a particular society. He builds a neo-Aristotelian

definition, by adopting Aristotle's understanding that virtue is related to the skills involved in living a good life, which in turn depends on grasping what a good life looks like by reference to natural and historical ends. According to MacIntyre, the exercise of virtue always exhibits a “practice,” by which he means a socially established cooperative human activity. “Bricklaying is not a practice; architecture is. Planting turnips is not a practice; farming is” (ibid., p. 187). There are, to be sure, both internal and external “good” to such practices, but even the internal practice has expression in the community and presumably benefits all. Thus the distinction of “internal” and “external” pertains to the placement of action. Practice pertains to the final standards of excellence and obedience to rules as well as the achievement of ends (ibid., p. 190). Such standards may be modified in history, but judgments as to adherence and achievement are based on objective (communally defined) criteria, not on subjective or emotive analyses. In other words, virtue is ultimately a social act and demands

a certain kind of relationship between those who participate in it. Now the virtues are those goods by reference to which, whether we like it or not, we define our relationship to those people with whom we share the kind of purposes and standards which inform practices. (Ibid., p. 191)

All this depends on seeing a human life as a continuous narrative rather than as a series of isolated acts and events, which of course raises a profoundly disturbing question for the moderns to answer:

The question is: is it rationally justifiable to conceive of each human life as a unity, so that we may try to specify each such life as having its good and so that we may understand the virtues as having their function in enabling an individual to make of his or her life one kind of unity rather than another? (Ibid., p. 203)

In other words, is virtue in some fundamental sense a lens by which we peer at a life, or is it the internal compass by which an individual orients his or her own behavior? In either case, it is the narrative of selfhood that is being told. In this regard, narrative itself formulates ethical problems and solutions. Novels, poems, plays, and personal accounts offer vivid moral lessons not by elaborating a systematic ethics but by tapping into collective experience and the wellsprings of the “social imaginary.” It is here that we encounter moral choice—solution and impasse—in the full range of human behavior. As MacIntyre observes, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” (MacIntyre 1985, p. 216). Narrative thus not only becomes a legitimate source for philosophical comment but presents us with

the very possibility of developing moral inquiry.[3] The centrality of narrative will serve us in placing Thoreau within his own moral philosophy, for in many respects, by regarding Thoreau as “writing a life” we might appreciate his ethics at work.

The question remains, What did Thoreau regard as virtuous? A study of his political writings—from “Resistance to Civil Government” (1973b) to his late defenses of John Brown—offer us a political philosophy both particular to his time and more generally relevant to our own. (We will consider this aspect in the next section.) In addition, or alternatively, we might glean from Thoreau's correspondence and the rich trove of biographical anecdotes a moral portrait of the man. And perhaps most richly, we could simply cite Walden and list the opinions, stipulations, criticisms, and exonerations offered in each chapter, and come up with a virtual moral index ranging from abolitionism to the Zen of direct and intuitive insight. There is an explicit moral code elaborated there in detail, so that one might attain a utopian economy, a utopian life based on its principles (see, e.g., Cafro 1997). But do any of these strategies present a core formulation by which we might understand Thoreau's singular concept of virtue?

“Virtue” hardly appears as an explicit issue in Thoreau's Journal after April 1842. There are numerous references in his early entries, but the problem of virtue as an abstract, philosophical issue largely disappears from his musings, only to erupt occasionally again (e.g., a “prayer” discussed in the next chapter: July 16, 1851,Journal 3, 1990, pp. 311–12). Although one might perceive that Thoreau is alluding to “virtue” throughout his oeuvre, after the first volume of the Journal—noteworthy for nineteen separate entries on “virtue”—there are scant direct references. And even in these early writings, “virtue” is given no sustained comment and is cited only in aphorisms, punctuating inferences to an underlying ethos.[4] Virtue was clearly on his mind, but these ethical nuggets can only be understood in the context of a fuller accounting of what virtue might be for Thoreau.

Most obviously, to live a virtuous life was to live deliberately, or, as we might put it, selfconsciously. Whether as a day laborer, naturalist, or writer, Thoreau carefully chose his path of action, one he determined as meaningful. When he wrote in Walden's “Higher Laws,” “Our whole life is startlingly moral” (1971, p. 218), he was obviously advising us of what he perceived as a fundamental fact.[5] We see this most evidently in those activities which were guided by his sense of a proper relation to the natural, where he attempted some communion with nature in an immediate awareness. Under these auspices, Thoreau approached nature as a member of its congregation: “The constant query Nature puts is Are you virtuous? Then

you can behold me” (June 5, 1852,Journal 5, 1997, p. 79). Only if pure and worthy would he be allowed to behold nature and drink of her splendor: “Beauty—fragrance—music—sweetness–& joy of all kinds are for the virtuous” (ibid.). There is a quality of the lover enjoying the pleasures of his partner in this passage, but in addition to the intensity of his spiritual delight, Thoreau reckons he enjoys admission to that altar because of his purified state, the trial of cleansing and the exercise of virtue that has brought him to that place. These religious and rapturous overtones are not to be neutralized as some kind of metaphoric or poetic account. Thoreau indeed was committed to nature, and because of his devotion he was elected to a special standing, which warranted his sermonizing tone. As Thoreau's orienting pole star and spiritual object in all matter and form, nature truly was regarded devoutly and with extraordinary intensity. If we understand him in conventional terms, we might miss the utter absorption he experienced, and exhibited, in his nature worship.

In examining Thoreau's vision of time, history, memory, and natural observations we are struck not only with the personal aspect of his recording but with his selfconscious intention of fulfilling a selfdefined quest directed toward a moral vision of himself in selfconscious awareness of his relation to nature. This is the vision of the ethical life as one that champions the wild as the first principle of nature herself, but more saliently, as the basis of our own link to the world. In seeking the core of our own being, Thoreau asserts that the wild is the essential element and that by domesticating it through civilization we lose contact with the deepest source of our spirituality. Justly, “Walking” is regarded as a national anthem to a new moral standing of nature. The essay begins with a cry to arms:

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement. (Thoreau 1980b, p. 93)

The slogan “in Wildness is the preservation of the World” (ibid., p. 112) truly captures Thoreau's moral stand.

But as I have endeavored to show, as central as this relationship is to Thoreau, it is an epiphenomenon of something deeper—the discovery of the self and its perfection. In this Romantic context we see Thoreau's relationship to nature as the expression of that effort. He might have sought selfdefinition in another context, but he chose nature, and thereby nature became the moral vehicle by which he explored his own identity and developed his personhood. The Journal, more than other project, became the narrative

which, again following MacIntyre, allowed him the “practice” that virtue ethics demands as constitutive of its structure: the narrative record gave coherence and continuity to a life that was literally being written. Walt Whitman published Song of Myself; Thoreau kept, in private, “a book of myself.” It served as the repository of a life we might share.

The telos of a good life in Thoreau's view is best described by Thoreau himself:

Virtue is incalculable, as it is inestimable. Well man's destiny is but Virtue—or manhood—it is wholly moral—to be learned only by the life of the soul. God cannot calculate it—he has no moral philosophy—no ethics[.] The reason before it can be applied to such a subject will have to fetter and restrict it—how can he step by step perform that long journey—who has not conceived whither he is bound–How can he expect to perform an arduous journey without interruption who has no passport to the end? (April 3, 1842,Journal 1, 1981, p. 401)

One might read this passage as a prayer, where “the life of the soul” is its own life, beyond morality—that is man's rational construct, which will only fetter it—and is given directly to man by God's grace. There is indeed some “passport to the end,” and we are obligated to pursue our destiny, which, because it is chosen, could only be virtuous.

Thus, according to Thoreau, our destiny is prescribed as following the character of our personhood. In this sense our lives are composed both from the contingencies of circumstance and from the creative responses arising from our moral personalities. To the extent that each of us is able, we pursue, and discover, our own selfmade fortune. Thoreau does not develop the philosophical foundations of this thought, but he draws from implicit assertions of free will the imperative of the rational, and the core organizing force of moral agency. Like Nietzsche after him, morality becomes the ethics of self-responsibility, and Thoreau, the Romantic individual, answers only to himself.[6]

In the “Conclusion” to Walden, Thoreau writes perhaps the clearest credo for a life governed by the virtue ethics of what Coleridge had called individuation (see chapter 3). It might be termed, in the American context, the creed of individuality. All of the elements for virtue ethics—practice, telos, and achievement—are contained here, encapsulating the life of simplicity, communality with nature, and the paramount place of self-actualization:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common

hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them. (Walden, 1971, pp. 323–24)

The key to this passage, and indeed to Walden, is that one's life may be constructed from within—as a germ that must be cultivated to flourish. In this respect, the self is fundamentally organic and selfdetermined.

The Imagination—as close to a vital center as we might find in Thoreau's moral cosmos—is more than our faculty by which to understand nature, or create art, for it serves as the means by which the self might grow according to its own telos. The stultification of a repressive culture is the gravest threat to this thriving, and besides the direction nature offers us, more basically, it is the freedom from civilization's inhibition that affords us the opportunity to flourish. This is Thoreau's wellknown and celebrated credo. But I venture to argue that his moral attitude extended beyond ethical action as normally understood. When he declared that “our whole life is startlingly moral” (Walden, 1971, p. 218; emphasis added), I take him literally. Beyond social consciousness and individual action, Thoreau's moral universe extended to investing the natural world with his own vision. Plainly stated, Thoreau's worldmaking is valueladen, which simply means that he chose how to see, and in so doing, he discovered a world that was uniquely his own. No doubt there is a “real” world to encounter, but how that engagement occurs is a moral, namely human, choice—one dictated by a host of factors which play together to direct attention, perception, and final signification. As already detailed in previous chapters, by focusing on certain elements of a panorama or the behavior of a particular animal, Thoreau allowed his inner eye—the poetic and spiritual “organ”—to direct his optical vision and attune his ear. Thus there is a cognitive component to Thoreau's moral vision, one fully integrated with ethical conduct in a more ordinary sense. To see creatively was itself, for Thoreau, a value.

And now we come to Thoreau's dilemma: How might he translate his private experience into the public domain? His own tortured path fell precisely at this divide. In one sense, he protected his inner life and regarded his virtue as a private affair:


Men should hear of your virtue only as they hear the creaking of the earths' axle and the music of the spheres. It will fall into the course of nature and be effectually concealed by publicness. (February 10, 1841, Journal 1, 1981, p. 263)

On the other hand, he was not shy to lecture his fellow Concordians on politics and the moral life more generally. Indeed, following MacIntyre, Thoreau's virtue ethics required the discharge of a social role and the attainment of some private telos. Both elements are important to Thoreau—the public and the personal—indeed, they are not easily separated. Thoreau was well aware that he, in the endeavor to create a life he regarded as honest, was doing so in a public forum. After all, for all of his talk about solitude, Thoreau lectured actively. But more to the point, he was frustrated by the lack of the literary success that would have enabled him to assemble a large, attentive audience. He aspired to being recognized as a seer, one whom the ordinary would hear and follow. His was the work of the prophet, and Thoreau unabashedly regarded himself as engaged in heroic work.[7] But heroes are not always successful; indeed, the tragic hero is defined by his failure. So in terms of his moral venture we must now assess Thoreau's achievement, first as a writer of nature and than as a political moralist.


The sound of the dreaming frogs prevails over the others.

Thoreau, June 13, 1851, Journal 3, 1990, p. 263

Thoreau's claim of showing us a life of virtue rests most apparently upon his position as godfather of the environmental movement, the leading figure in the pantheon of naturalists. He has achieved that status not because he was a selfconscious and careful observer. To be sure, he was, but the character of that enterprise was to seek the metaphysical origins of his morality. This aspect of his moral project ultimately “succeeds” despite the “failure” of his epistemology, by which I mean that Thoreau could not capture nature in his writings as he experienced it. At best, he might “present a scene in which the gap between man and nature will seem virtually closed” (McIntosh 1974, p. 156; emphasis added)—but not quite. As beautiful and evocative as any of his descriptions might be, there was a gulf separating his primary encounter with the self-consciousness of reflection and composition. And even more fundamentally, no matter how deeply he sought correspondence with nature, he realized that “[h]is [the poet's] thought is one world, her's [Nature] another. He is another nature—Nature's brother”

(March 3, 1839,Journal 1, 1981, p. 69).[8] But it was in the doing, in the exercise, in the pursuit of the vision he experienced, that we witness most clearly Thoreau practicing what he considered to be a virtuous life.

Thoreau's entire project depends on the personalization of experience: “the truth respecting his things shall naturally exhale from a man like the odor of the muskrat from the coat of a trapper” (November 1, 1851,Journal 4, 1992, p. 158; emphasis in original). Note the emphasized possessive adjective,his. Truth is not assessed or attained through some positivist standard, but rather falls squarely within the personal domain. This is not to say that Thoreau creates “truth” in the idealistic sense: for him, the world indeed exists independent, real, and knowable. But a dialectic plays here between the subject and his object of inquiry. Ultimately, the observing eye must gather “facts,” but these are ordered into an interpretative description of nature, whether under the guise of science or poetry.

Thoreau was not always sanguine about his ability to transmit his vision, and some of his “facts” are not ordinary perceptions readily transmitted to the public domain. Many times Thoreau recognizes the ultimate privacy of his experience. Consider, for example, the following early Journal entry:

Perhaps I may say that I have never had a deeper and more memorable experience of life—its great serenity, than when listening to the trill of a treesparrow among the huckleberry bushes after a shower. It is a communication to which a man must attend in solitude and silence, and may never be able to tell his brother. (September 28, 1843,Journal 1, 1981, p. 469)

This is a particularly poignant passage. It stands alone, and we are witness to Thoreau's solitude—indeed, isolation. This takes on deeper significance as we recall Emerson's famous judgment in his eulogy of Thoreau:

I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party. Pounding beans is good to the end of pounding empires one of these days, but if, at the end of years, it is still only beans!— (Quoted in Rossi 1992, pp. 331–32)

Many commentators have been struck by Emerson's lack of insight into Thoreau's enterprise, and the choice of the huckleberry setting is particularly revealing given Emerson's own lost dreams of youthful exuberance.[9] Further, the slap at the hoeing of beans is particularly callous considering the ethical import of the entire Walden experiment. Emerson, who himself had followed the same deserted path into the woods in his youth had apparently come to deny or ignore one of Thoreau's key messages:


at the same time that we exclude mankind from gathering berries in our field, we exclude them from gathering health and happiness and inspiration and a hundred other far finer and nobler fruits than berries. (Thoreau,Journal, [1906] 1962, 14:56)

If Emerson misunderstood Thoreau, only finally to reject him, no wonder Thoreau so profoundly felt his solitude. And this was not solely a function of the limits of language or the adequacy of facts to convey his experience. The other intractable limitation was the inability of others to hear, to comprehend, to appreciate the world as Thoreau did:

I heard the dream of the toad. It rang through and filled all the air, though I had not heard it once. And I turned my companion's attention to it, but he did not appear to perceive it as a new sound in the air. Loud and prevailing as it is, most men do not notice it at all. It is to them, perchance, a sort of simmering or seething of all nature. That afternoon the dream of the toads rang through the elms by Little River and affected the thoughts of men, though they were not conscious that they heard it. (October 26, 1853,Journal, [1906] 1962, 5:453)

Dreaming frogs appear frequently in the spring Journal entries of 1851 (May 21, 25; June 13, 14) and 1852 (April 30, May 3, 5, 7, 8) during Thoreau's Romantic turn. He only alludes to their significance for him, and we may surmise that in hearing the frogs' inner voice, he detects the faint pulse of nature itself, the measure of its nearness. But beyond the intimacy of nature, Thoreau is keenly aware of its supernatural standing, and he uses the frogs to declare that reality:

The frog had eyed the heavens from his marsh, until his mind was filled with visions, & he saw more than belongs to this fenny earth–He mistrusted that he was become a dreamer & visionary—leaping across the swamp to his fellow what was his joy & consolation to find that he too had seen the same sights in the heavens—he too had dreamed the same dreams.

From nature we turn astonished to this near but supernatural fact[.] (May 21, 1851,Journal 3, 1990, p. 229)

This passage immediately follows an almost rapturous observation of Thoreau's deepest hope to communicate with his fellow citizen:

There is a representative of the divinity on earth—of all things fair & noble are to be expected. We have the material of heaven here. I think that the standing miracle to man is man—behind the paling—yonder come rain or shine—hope or doubt—there dwells a man. an actual being who can sympathize with our sublimest thoughts….


I think that the existence of man in nature is the divinest and most startling of all facts–It is a fact which few have realized. (Ibid.)

Thoreau is like the frogs, consoled by the ability of another sentient being to appreciate that which he perceives as a “supernatural fact.” Unfortunately, two years later Thoreau admits that his companion could not hear the dreaming frogs, and we thus witness the unresolved tension between Thoreau's striving to communicate his vision and the inability of his fellows to understand him. He is left essentially alone: “I hear the dreaming of the frogs–So it seems to me & so significantly passes my life away. It is like the dreaming of frogs in a summer evening” (May 25, 1851,Journal 3, 1990, p. 237).

At the same time, Thoreau was compelled to write. As he confided to his Journal well in his maturity:

I see that my neighbors look with compassion on me, that they think it is mean and unfortunate destiny which makes me to walk in these fields and woods so much and sail on this river alone. But so long as I find here the only real elysium, I cannot hesitate in my choice. My work is writing, and I do not hesitate, though I know that no subject is too trivial for me, tried by ordinary standards; for, ye fools, the theme is nothing, the life is everything. (October 18, 1856,Journal, [1906], 1962, 9:121)

The “life” of writing indeed is Thoreau's life; he is in effect writing his autobiography, but it is a most circumscribed aspect of his full experience. More, in the process of writing ostensibly about nature, the self emerges:

We touch our subject but by a point which has no breadth, but the pyramid of our experience … rests on us by a broader or narrower base. That is, man is all in all, Nature nothing, but as she draws him out and reflects him. (Ibid.)

Much has been written regarding Thoreau's imperative of writing (e.g., Cavell 1981; Cameron 1985; Garber 1991), which builds basically on Thoreau's own aspiration: “As you see so at length will you say” (November 1, 1851,Journal 4, 1992, p. 158), and I hardly would dispute Thoreau's principal identity as writer. He selfconsciously and ambitiously pursued his art and adopted the ethos of the literary circle.[10] After all, Thoreau's primary vocation was writing, and he pursued his craft with passion, distinguishing “recording” from “creation.”

Writing may be either the record of a deed or a deed.

It is nobler when it is a deed…. Its productions are then works of art. And stand like monuments of history–To the poet as artist his

words must be as the relation of his remotest and finest memory. And older and simpler antiquity–Contemporary with the moon and grasshoppers. (After January 1, 1844,Journal 1, 1981, p. 495)

The moon and the grasshoppers refer to the supernatural, and while Thoreau claims that the memory of that experience might inspire his writing, he does not assert that he accomplishes more than the creation of a work of art that might well stand in history. That is, of course, worthy in itself, but that is not the issue with which we are now concerned, namely, What is the relation of the writer—the conscious intellect, the knowing ego—to his immediate experience?

Thoreau was keenly aware of the “levels” of experience by which objectivity divided the world. While partaking in the keen observation of nature, albeit ultimately for poetic or spiritual purpose, he recognized, like the phenomenologists after him, that experience was distilled and in the process “refined”—categorized, objectified—and thus filtered through various conceptual channels and changed accordingly. The implications of that selfconscious appraisal had farreaching effects, most directly in the experience of nature. Nature was always “processed” by the mind and accordingly was experienced as a product of “the Wild” (as a Kantian noumenon) and a cognitive faculty.[11] This represents a personalization of the radical other: “Through our conceptual domestication of nature, we extinguish wild otherness even in the imagination” (Evernden 1992, p. 116).

How can one respond to the dilemma implicit in these constructions of nature? One may simply acknowledge the duality of the subjectobject dichotomy, leaving man to “know” the world as best he might, a consequence of our epistemological posture. On this view, we accept different degrees of dualism and different degrees of knowing, so that there may be things we might vaguely appreciate but not know, such as the wild. With this concept of the wild, there must persist a domain that remains “unknown,” that is, unapproached by human understanding. Thus Thoreau's battle cry, “in Wildness is the preservation of the world” (“Walking,” 1980b, p. 112), becomes a slogan celebrating this inexhaustible reservoir for human experience. So while we may study nature scientifically, employ it for technology, model it for art, and ponder it as a spiritual resource, each modality adheres to the basic epistemological subjectobject divide. Thus nature (the Wild) is never truly tamed or known.

Yet Thoreau “sensed” the Wild, both in mystical revelry and as some kind of personal savagery. These were elusive experiences, and oftentimes we get the sense that he was incapable of offering us the descriptive means to witness his vision. “Frogs' dreams” is a fecund metaphor, an allusion to an appreciation

of nature and reality; but at another level we might take the image as the only language available—an evocative but hardly explicit description. “Frogs' dreams”—whatever they might be—was as forthcoming as the experience would allow. Simply, there are supernatural facts, and these are not to be understood—or communicated—by conventional, that is, public, means. In this realm, science and its search for positivist facts is irrelevant. Thoreau believed that “we do not learn by inference and deduction … but by direct intercourse” (October 11, 1840,Journal 1, 1981, p. 187), and by “direct” he meant unmediated. If no mediation is required to appreciate and know nature, then no language is required either. “Direct” implies no distance between subject and object; so when the knower is immersed in nature, intellectualization—reflection, contemplation—is suspended. But that experience when communicated as knowledge then requires a radical reformulation, for cognitive categories must be applied. Where language was unnecessary in the primary encounter because it was “thoughtless,” that is, mystical, it becomes something else in public transmittal. “The whole point is, of course, that the senses are always ‘too late,’ once we become aware of them they already have meaning. They have become attached; they are, to use Thoreau's own phrase, ‘made’ for something” (Hansen 1990, p. 134).

So much of Thoreau's writing seems to move toward an ephemeral point—an imprecise triangulation between nature, himself, and his reader— because frequently the experience he is recording is preconscious and must employ in these cases, as the best approximation, prose poetry. Thoreau would valiantly push the limits of language, but he was caught on the horns of an intractable dilemma: on the one hand, he sought the “miracle” of man to hear and respond to him; on the other hand, no matter how carefully he wrote, Thoreau could barely achieve a fair transmission of his experience and vision into words. His was a lonely vigil. No wonder he felt as if he resided with the frogs in their dreams—and they in his.

Thoreau's frustration may be the reason why he intrigues us so powerfully. To refer to Thoreau's naturalist writings as in some sense a disappointment may be jolting. He is, after all, justly celebrated as a seer of the environmentalists' imagination, a consummate practitioner of his art. As an observer of nature, his careful descriptions, meticulous notetaking, comprehensive recordkeeping, and eloquent accounts of encounters with landscapes and natural life of all sorts are exemplary naturalist writings. If indeed he is a naturalist extraordinaire, on what basis did he “fail”?

His was no ordinary failure. But if one sees Thoreau as striving for metaphysical integration as his ultimate ambition, his writing repeatedly forced him to face his own self-consciousness. He was all too well aware that he

was writing. In offering his experience, specifically his integration with, and knowledge of, nature, he produces a representation, which must, by its very character, be a “translation.” In this sense, his medium of communication consumes what he would communicate. Thoreau cannot do what Sharon Cameron takes him to be doing; that is, he cannot “write” nature, dissolve the subjectobject relationship, efface his own identity, and in the literary product offer us his own consciousness (1985, pp. 46–48, 88–89; previously discussed in chapter 3). By Cameron's lights, the natural world and Thoreau's writing are somehow of one piece, seamlessly connected. I maintain (as discussed in chapter 3) that this putative fusion rests on a category error. One must not confuse the description with its object. For example, if I describe a bottle in every detail, even if I photograph the bottle from a dozen different angles, my description can never be the bottle. As Magritte wrote at the bottom of his painting of a pipe, “Ceci n'est pas une pipe.” The representation is by its nature derivative and interpretative; Thoreau could only depict the world, just as a painter might. This is a classic semiotic snarl, but the signified/signifier difference is fundamental. We may gaze upon the object of inquiry, but to confuse that gaze with the object itself is to make the most basic of category errors. Cameron makes such a conflation in her interpretation of Thoreau's Journal writing. But did Thoreau?

Thoreau was ever mindful of not “writing nature.” The reconstruction of experience accomplished in and by his writing is an artistic rendering of that experience. But Cameron has pointedly brought into focus the intriguing question that deserves fuller attention, for it falls squarely in the midst of the epistemological standing of Thoreau's writing: namely, What is the relation between the object of inquiry—the natural world—and this method of study and reporting (whether as formal scientific description or as descriptive narrative, namely natural history, or its philosophical or psychological extensions of those observations)? I do not contest that in mystical union the subjectobject divide may be dissolved. I acknowledge that Thoreau suspended the selfother dichotomy in mystical states, and that he quite forthrightly attempted to report those experiences. But his testimony is a mere allusion. And when he engaged in studying nature, seeking careful measurement and observation in many different venues, he divested himself of his mystical cloud and strode forth to engage the world in minute detail, well aware of the selfother separation. He certainly knew what it meant to apply systematic thinking to a problem, whether to record the first appearance of flowers or to determine the best mixture of clay and graphite to make a better pencil (Petroski 1989). In other words, Thoreau knew what it meant to engage in the science of his day, and he readily drew upon the

most recent scientific contributions of geology, taxonomy, ornithology, entomology, botany, ichthyology, albeit in an older naturalist tradition. But then Thoreau also practiced an “intermediate” literary venture, situated somewhere between selfabsorbed mystical reverie and objectivity-oriented positivist science. This was the art of his nature writing, the distillation and translation of a selfconscious encounter with nature, one posed specifically as an intimate exchange, one imbued with significance and beauty.

Cameron's description best suits not what Thoreau accomplished but rather what he attempted. This venture sustained him, because of its moral intent: attending many needs, most importantly Thoreau's writing satisfied an ethical calling. As readers, we readily perceive that he is prescriptive: Integrate experience! Personalize knowledge! See selfconsciously with a poetic eye! Boldly stated in many places, his exhortations have no ambiguity and no subtlety. But he also enacts another morality play. In this less direct guise, Thoreau remains coyly evocative, offering us only vague indications where we too might pursue a path similar to his own, but one which we must discover individually. This is Thoreau's deeper lesson: the recognition that there are no formulae or prescriptions, but only a nebulous approximation of the vision a great mystic might hope to report. He indicated the direction he followed: each, he tells us, must find his own path. Thoreau's writing can only suggest the contours of his own insights. His rhetoric is full of dreams, frogs, mists. It is a world of mirages, symbols, fables, myths, and fantasies. It is the world of poetry.

At about the same time as Thoreau lived at Walden Pond, Kierkegaard was writing of the leap beyond rationality to the dominion of the divine. There was no philosophical hope of adjudicating belief, and Kierkegaard clearly voiced a religious existentialism that would have reverberated sweetly in Thoreau's Massachusetts woods. Thoreau would indeed have agreed with Kierkegaard's cardinal point about the immiscible nature of logical discourses and metaphysical experiences. At the nexus of the selfconscious rational mind, each of them would have forgone the attempt to reconcile that faculty's knowledge of the world with the frogs' dreams emanating from supernatural or moral universes. Each approached the issue from his unique perspective—as religionist and naturalist—but each testified to the same lesson. As Thoreau wrote,

The destiny of the soul can never be studied by the reason—for its modes are not extatic–In the wisest calculation or demonstration I but play a game with myself–I am not to be taken captive by myself.

I cannot conceive myself—God must convince–I can calculate a problem in arithmetic—but not any morality. (Thoreau, April 3, 1842,Journal 1, 1981, p. 401)


Thoreau recognized that indeed there was a spiritual domain that might be exhibited to him, but his analytical tools were not to be applied in its understanding. His “wisest calculation” is only reduced to “a game,” and morality resides beyond reason. That is not to say that the ethical life was beyond man, only that its call is not derived logically, nor understood in a conventionally rational sense.

Aside from the differences in orientation, this is Kierkegaard's theme in Fear and Trembling, a work published in October 1843, written precisely when Thoreau penned this Journal entry. The Dane was dealing with “understanding” of the divine encounter, the “beyond rationality” of faith, and the inability of language to convey that experience, for, being outside comprehension and the intellect (in any logical sense), speech can grasp no hold to express the meeting of God and man. Kierkegaard's discussion revolves around Abraham taking Isaac for sacrifice to God, and toward the end of the essay, he discusses the role of language in the context of Abraham's inability to explain what he is about:

Abraham is silent—but he cannot speak, therein lies the distress and anguish…. He can say what he will, but there is one thing he cannot say and since he cannot say it, i.e. say it in a way that another understands it, he does not speak…. [H]e doesn't say anything, and this is his way of saying what he has to say. (Kierkegaard [1843] 1985, pp. 137 and 142)

This is the same conclusion Wittgenstein drew in his famous adage at the end of the Tractatus, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” ([1922] 1981, p. 189). Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein meant that language—using the presumption of logic—could make no sense of the metaphysical. From this point of view, when we speak of such matters, it is either “nonsense” (Wittgenstein) or “universal” (Kierkegaard); nonsense is nonsense and the universal is the universal, that is, prosaic. In both cases speech is, at best, distorting, and, more fairly, simply false to the experience. Thus both Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, despite their vastly different orientations, arrived at the same point— “[F]aith [the metaphysical generally] begins precisely where thinking leaves off” (Kierkegaard [1843] 1985, p. 82)—and language stops at that point.[12] When Kierkegaard explores the domain of faith, he offers us a few hints about this unintelligibility:

Here we see the need for a new category for understanding Abraham…. Abraham cannot be mediated, which can also be put by saying he cannot speak. The moment I speak I express the universal, and when I do not no one can understand me…. Perhaps what the

believer intends just cannot be done, after all it is unthinkable. (Ibid., pp. 88–89)

Language is, after all, the expression of our thinking; without thought there is nothing to say. Thoreau might well have concurred: he wrote of dreaming frogs that their sound “is such a sound as you can make with a quill on water—a bubbling sound” (Thoreau, May 5, 1852,Journal 5, 1997, p. 29). Hardly language anyone else might understand. And even more explicitly,

There is no name for this life unless it be the very vitality of vita–Silent is the preacher about it—and silent must ever be. for he who knows it will not preach. (August 1, 1841,Journal 1, 1981, p. 315)

So Thoreau swings between the requirement that he write, knowing that he can capture only a small portion of his experience, and the admission that the profoundest insight cannot be discussed at all.

Yet much of Thoreau's accomplishment as a writer hinges on his ability to describe nature and his relation to it, and it would be perverse simply to dismiss his literary efforts as a doomed effort to speak the unspeakable. A tension then needs to be further explored to make the point I wish to stress here. Indeed, other philosophers, most notably Stanley Cavell, have vexed themselves over this issue. Cavell makes the salient point that language, despite the problem of transmitting private experience does, must, carry meaning. “Writing is a labor of the hands” (Cavell 1981, p. 27), and it is in the doing, in the effort, that meaning is forged, both for the writer writing and for the reader reading. Each must do his own work. Somewhere then, between the inert deadness of words and understanding, we must translate.[13] And here we find language's meaning: “What gives it life?—In use it is alive. Is life breathed into it there?—Or is the use its life?” (Wittgenstein 1953, p. 128e). Wittgenstein's thesis is that the miracle of language is in its use—that, indeed, language is fundamentally functional in its own doing. So too would Thoreau regard his writing as the act of giving life to words that could only point to experience, and hopefully beckoning his reader to his or her own work in the reading of those words. The reader is intimately linked to Thoreau's project, for “reading is not merely the other side of writing, its eventual fate; it is another metaphor of writing itself” (Cavell 1981, p. 28).

Obviously, some writing is more amenable to communication than other kinds. For instance, when Thoreau describes the economy of his experiment, it is clear what he is about; when he draws a word picture describing a landscape, he evokes an image and its accompanying emotion with broad, if indistinct, strokes of his pencil; when he refers to feelings of the sublime,

we float in foggy vapors and language begins to fail us. Both Kierkegaard and Thoreau do indeed write of the spiritual, the experience that knows no words. They wrote, in fact, a lot, and thus their action belied their own doubts. This, of course, follows the tradition of great mystics—whom we know of!—who sought words to convey their experience and yet knew that their efforts diminished, even distorted, what they had experienced. There are, to be sure, different ways of dealing with transcendence: silence; distinguishing between ways in which the transcendent is beyond discourse and ways in which it may not be; and, finally, refusal to resolve the dilemma, that is, acceptance of a genuine aporia (Sells 1994). This last response leads to a particular kind of discourse, where any saying demands a correcting proposition, an unsaying, so to speak; and in the “space” between the names, we might approximate meaning. This is the technique employed by Plotinus, Ibn Arabi, Meister Eckhart, among many others, but it is not Thoreau's method, which, for lack of a more comprehensive description, I will call “poetic.” In verse, but more often in prose poetry, Thoreau, very much in the tradition of his circle, used nature as the spiritual muse to whom he responded by writing of his experience. He spoke for the most part with confidence, admitting on occasion the “dullness” of his ability. So, while he appreciated the limits of thought, rationality, and poesis, Thoreau remained a writer, and in this context, a courageous one.

But there is another level of insecurity with the writing project. Although Thoreau endeavored to capture nature in his writing as a translation of his unmediated experience, beyond what he directly perceived through his senses and intellect, there were intimations that a supernatural world beckoned, more ideal and real than nature as he might see or understand it— Plato's cave in a different guise. This then represents a second level of inaccessibility: that is, beyond what he experienced but could not express, there were clues of a spiritual dimension he did not even apprehend. While we might sense this hidden sublime reality, it is not accessible to our imperfect intelligences and thus remains unarticulated even by our most profound poetic or aporiatic language. Ideal nature is not only simply out of reach of rational consciousness, it is unknowable in any sense and thus beyond Thoreau's pencil, in any mode.

I believe that there is an ideal or real nature, infinitely more perfect than the actual as there is an ideal life of man. Else where are the glorious summers which in vision sometimes visit my brain[.]

When nature ceases to be supernatural to a man—what will he do then? Of what worth is human life—if its actions are no longer to have this sublime and unexplored scenery. Who will build a cottage and

dwell in it with enthusiasm if not in the elysian fields? (Thoreau, November 2, 1843,Journal 1, 1981, p. 481)

In fact, Thoreau did, by moving into his Walden cabin less than two years later.

Thoreau was modest in his expectations of Rational Understanding, but he was stalwart in pursuing nature's moral order, for he indeed had seen a spiritual vision that sustained and guided him. For all the homage Thoreau paid the critical faculty, when he faces the metaphysical, reason is subordinated to the insight offered by divine revelation:

On one side of man is the actual and on the other the ideal–The former is the province of the reason[.] it is even a divine light when directed upon it—but it cannot reach forward into the ideal without blindness. The moon was made to rule by night, but the sun to rule by day. Reason will be but a pale cloud like the moon when one ray of divine light comes to illumine the soul. (April 3, 1842,Journal 1, 1981, p. 401)

From this perspective, the nature of language, for all its breadth and miracle of communication of experience, simply cannot eclipse its inherent limits. Our overreliance on language is simply the product of an older metaphysics. So discussions regarding the self's relation to nature can offer no bona fide knowledge. Instead, we speak in generalities, poetics, and metaphors, which may easily be misunderstood or disputed, depending on the perspective adopted or the evidence that one chooses to bring to discourse. Although such discussions may be important, we must recognize their true character: perhaps holding relevance and revealing erudition within religious, literary, psychoanalytic, political, ideological, or historical contexts, such communications may never be confused as meaningful in Wittgenstein's sense.[14] Yet, Thoreau no doubt persisted in his own attempts to capture his experience in words. At the same time, he knew, and told us, that the deepest experience and the clearest sightings of reality were private. As he wrote in Walden, “perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man” (1971, p. 216). Note that Thoreau was not stating that we could not perceive such reality as nature offered us, but that each of us must engage that spiritual realm independently and directly. The poet might guide us there, but ultimately we are responsible for our encounter, individualized and personal.

Thoreau was indeed a writer, one who could not abide the impasse later philosophy might have offered him. Despite his frustrations, he would write, and in so doing, would deny Wittgenstein's solipsism. Even in the splendid seclusion of his cabin at Walden Pond, Thoreau always had his eye directed

to his reader, endeavoring to bridge his own social and psychological separation through literary efforts. They hardly shared the same reservations, for, after all, Thoreau proposed “to brag as lustily as chanticleer … if only to wake my neighbors up” (Walden, 1971, p. 84). In some essential fashion, Thoreau had to write. Why? At Walden Pond, we witness Thoreau's writing, the doing of a “literary man,” and in that literary heritage we appreciate the full import of his endeavor as a moral one. Thoreau was a selffashioned Romantic hero in the sense that he would not succumb to the anxiety of the self separating from its world in some final and irretrievable way, and to a large extent, writing was the means to his salvation. So, by inscribing his selfhood, in writing his life, Thoreau exercised his most basic understanding of moral agency by fulfilling the imperative of deliberate, selfdetermined action and by forging the various elements of his life into a coherent whole, indeed, a new alloy.


Is not the poet bound to write his own biography? Is there any other work for him but a good journal? We do not wish to know how his imaginary hero, but how he, the actual hero, lived from day to day.

Thoreau, October 21, 1857, Journal, [1906] 1962, 10:115

To note Thoreau's self-consciousness is only to place him among Romantics generally; what distinguishes Thoreau from other Transcendentalists of his neighborhood was how he engaged nature actively and, unlike Emerson, went forth into the wild, leaving the armchair for active engagement as a selfappointed hero in the American quest of the West. Thoreau's moral example falls into two categories: the first is this environmental ethic which he espoused so eloquently; the second is, in a sense, even more universal, namely, the basis of moral action as residing in a radically selfdetermined agent. In the end, we must ponder how these two moral elements relate to each other and what are their ethical consequences. Thoreau certainly saw them as of one piece, crucial to a grandiose, heroic selfimage.

It is perhaps a bit odd to think of his quiet, uneventful life as heroic, but Thoreau certainly considered himself engaged in some epic contest. From his early Journal, we glean a cardinal principle of Thoreau's life: “any age is a heroic age to the heroic individual” (Richardson 1986, p. 26). Thoreau's identification with the Greeks and Romans suggested to him how he might envision “a new heaven and a new earth for Greece” (Thoreau, February

16, 1838,Journal 1, 1881, p. 29). After all, “The past is only so heroic as we see it—it is the canvass on which our idea of heroism is painted—the dim prospectus of our future field. We are dreaming of what we are to do” (July 3, 1840, ibid., p. 148). So the quiet town of Concord was as fitting a battlefield as the plains of Troy.[15] Thoreau played out this drama in the “Bean Field” chapter of Walden, a venture important not just to illustrate economic austerity but, because he “was determined to know beans” (p. 161), to serve as a parable of a heroic battle:

A long war, not with cranes, but with weeds, those Trojans who had sun and rain and dews on their side. Daily the beans saw me come to their rescue armed with a hoe, and thin the ranks of their enemies, filling up trenches with weedy dead. Many a lusty crestwaving Hector, that towered a whole foot above his crowding comrades, fell before my weapon and rolled in the dust. (Pp. 161–62)

This is a humorous passage, sustained by a dose of ironic selfmockery, but nevertheless the moral lesson stands in relief. Thoreau cultivated himself: “my labor … yielded an instant and immeasurable crop” (ibid., p. 159). While he tabulates his expenses and yields, and calculates a profit, his profit can hardly be measured in dollars and cents:

The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little stardust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched. (Ibid., pp. 216–17)

Just as in the battle of the ants in “Brute Neighbors” (Walden, 1971, pp. 228–31), we are indeed in struggle, and the point is to choose our battle and engage fully. Are we to live some false materialism or commercialism to no end, or cultivate our own fields, vanquish the inner enemy of our own weaknesses, and become the best that we might be? How to enlist ourselves to better purpose is the basic theme of Walden, and Thoreau regarded that matter very seriously. Indeed, the metaphysical import of his business—to glimpse “a life unlived,” to “trust the remotest,” to “look under the lids of Time”—was “all that I have imagined of heroism” (January 30, 1841,Journal 1, 1981, p. 242).

We are repeatedly summoned to enlist and march in Thoreau's army, albeit in pace with our own drummer (Walden, 1971, p. 326). This military image portends a cosmic struggle, one witnessed by heavenly forces.[16] And so Thoreau ended Walden, imploring us to follow our dreams, by which he meant pursue a heroic contest. His own meanderings over the cultivated hills and through the manicured forests of Concord's suburbs was heroic in

his mind: “For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the infidels. It is true, we are but fainthearted crusaders” (Thoreau, “Walking,” 1980b, p. 94). Therefore Thoreau admonishes us to “go West” and, in seeing the sunset, to imagine the gardens of the Hesperides, as did Columbus when discovering the New World.

The West, of course, is “but another name for the Wild” (Thoreau, “Walking,” 1980b, p. 112). The West, the Wild, is the mythic source of civilization, for “the founders of every state which has risen to eminence have drawn their nourishment and vigor from a similar wild source” (ibid.). To experience “the Wild” renews and invigorates us in our epic struggle to free ourselves from the clutches of civilization. A bit overstated? Not at all, if one perceives this battle as one of life and death: “Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him” (ibid., p. 114); there is no substitute—no philosophy, no poetry (“the best poetry is tame” [ibid., p. 120])—although, not surprisingly as the discourse of the heroes, mythology comes nearest to adequately expressing this yearning for the wild, for life. For Thoreau, the struggle is a morality drama, for “all good things are wild and free” (ibid., p. 122). So not only must we protect nature, we must find our own goodness within our own wildness. To the extent that Thoreau regarded himself as fulfilling that search, he was a hero. Whether we recognize him as misguided or as prophetic, the integrity of his pursuit should not be denied.

Heroic leaders almost always earn this role by their own personal triumph in struggle. Like Jacob at Jabbok, Thoreau wrestled with himself;[17] again like Jacob, he took a new name, exchanging “David Henry” for “Henry David” shortly after he graduated from college (Harding 1965, p. 54). Scholars have since debated the psychological significance of this shift,[18] and I would suggest that he changed his name, at least in part, because he regarded his personal quest as heroic, one requiring a selfappointed name to signify his own selfwilled forging of a new identity. In assuming a “new” name, he also put on a mantle to lead his fellow Concordians upon the beckoning road to the West.Walden may be read as “scripture” (Cavell 1981, p. 14), and Thoreau himself may be seen, following a line beginning with Emerson's eulogy and continuing through Joseph Wood Krutch (1948) to Edward Abbey and the Sierra Club, as “prophet,”[19] or perhaps “heroprophet”—a mix of both types.

Thoreau's strong emphasis on individuality, on isolation, and on experience bind together the way he saw the world and how he led his life. To break out of his selfimposed confinement—real and potential—and speak

to his fellow men and women was truly a heroic effort for Thoreau, and given the quandary of the personal, we can appreciate why. When we regard Thoreau as “hero,” we most clearly appreciate how he regarded the moral dimensions of his struggle and what was at stake. The hero stands out from the crowd, steadfast, in clear sight for all to see and follow. There is no doubt about the self in this mode, presented with confidence and with the ability to inspire. No less a project did Thoreau set for himself, and he spoke with the authority of the Right.[20] Certainty is reasserted, and it is accomplished by the only authority we have—ourselves (as he famously proclaimed in “Resistance to Civil Government,” 1973b). While necessary, is this standard sufficient? Thoreau had ample opportunity to test his moral code, and he left us a rich record by which he could be judged.

Thoreau lived in turbulent political times, and counting himself a Transcendentalist, he was hardly noteworthy for being nonconformist. After all, the likes of Bronson Alcott, Orestes Brownson, Emerson, Theodore Parker, and Elizabeth Peabody took critical stances against church and state at times more radical than Thoreau's. But opinion has been sharply divided about the nature of Thoreau's political philosophy (Taylor 1996), ranging from Emerson's lament that Thoreau was content with leading a huckleberry party to Bob Taylor's recent assessment “that contrary to Emerson's evaluation … there has been no writer with more ambition for America than Henry Thoreau, nor one more deeply concerned with the future moral character of our political community” (1996, p. 13). To draw such a sympathetic portrait, Taylor reads A Week and Walden as political accounts, where the problem facing the nation “is not primarily moral error [so much as] moral fear and indifference” (ibid., p. 33). On this reading, Thoreau rejects simple moralism (“conscience really does not, and ought not to monopolize the whole of our lives, any more than the heart or head” [A Week, 1980a, p. 74]) and attempts to bring history and memory into moral action. Thus memory becomes a moral exercise (e.g., “When the Indians die, we do not even remember, or care to remember, where they are buried” [Taylor 1996, p. 21]). In constructing the past, we must make our own reckoning of our social inheritance. This understanding of history served as the theme of chapter 2. We might also regard Thoreau's natural history through a political prism, where the deeply humanistic link with nature, the respect for nature in all of its manifestations, has broad social and political ramifications.

More accessible to political analysis are Thoreau's reform writings, which may be divided between more general statements that outline his political philosophy (e.g., the “Economy” chapter of Walden, 1971, and “Life without Principle,” in Reform Papers, 1973a) and those more specifically addressing

the moral challenge of slavery (e.g., “Herald of Freedom,” in Reform Papers, 1973a; “Slavery in Massachusetts,” 1973c; and “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” in Reform Papers, 1973a). While undoubtedly important in illustrating Thoreau's public ethics, I have paid scant attention to these reform papers or his activism more generally. Indeed, I regard these concerns as derivative of a deeper personal philosophy and thus of secondary interest for this study. But these papers do illustrate, very clearly, the egocentric focus of Thoreau's moral philosophy, which, like his nature writing and historiography, are dominated by his own individual concerns. It is, perhaps, ironic that in a fundamental sense Thoreau was at odds with democratic ideals, for while celebrating America, he almost exclusively placed the individual above or beyond the community. Therefore, instead of a detailed discussion of Thoreau's specific political views, I think it more appropriate to summarily situate his political philosophy within the context of his personal concerns and see how even in the political domain, Thoreau could not escape his preoccupation with himself.

Because of the tensions between his social maladroitness and his need to lead his fellow citizens in a radical moral reform, Thoreau moved along a privatetopublic continuum in the political writings. Various commentators have noted that Thoreau eschewed reform organizations as vigorously as churches, but despite this aversion, he did become actively involved with the abolition movement. Beyond his early lectures, Thoreau exhibited little overt activism, restricting himself to limited participation in the underground railroad and going to jail for a night (July 1846) as a result of refusing to pay the poll tax—an act of civil disobedience over the issue of the slave status of Texas and the resulting Mexican War. But Thoreau's political posture also embraced a more overt activism, for while he regarded personal reform, rugged moral selfreliance, and the assertion of individual virtue as constituting the bedrock of social responsibility (e.g., “The Service” and “Reform and the Reformers,” in Reform Papers, 1973a), he also asserted that the individual ultimately acts in a political context to effect his moral agency—either actively (e.g., “Wendell Phillips,” in Reform Papers, 1973a) or passively (e.g., “Resistance to Civil Government,” 1973b).[21]

We can see Thoreau's political philosophy unified if we understand that his underlying moral philosophy underwent no significant modulation but that his participatory politics did. Thus we can trace a progression of his activism from the mid-1840s to that reached with the fugitive slave issue revolving around Anthony Burns (“Slavery in Massachusetts,” 1973c). From passive noncompliance and selfremoval, Thoreau, by the time John Brown attacked Harper's Ferry in 1859, was fully, even passionately,

invested in personal action against the state. In a sense, his support for Brown reflects a complete outward turning of moral sentiment from personal outrage to public denunciation. It is as if Thoreau were no longer satisfied to reside in solitude or to resist government passively, so that by 1850, when the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted, his moral umbrage at the state's participation in the return of escaped slaves propelled the public participation that he had hitherto avoided. And by the end of the decade Thoreau came to regard John Brown as a true American hero, one he eulogized without restraint (“The Last Days of John Brown” and “Martyrdom of John Brown,” in Reform Papers, 1973a). Coupled with his admiration was, apparently, the realization that passive resistance was an inadequate response to state aggression. As Len Gougeon notes, “selfculture cannot be practiced in a society where freedom is either denied or actively threatened” (1995, p. 205). The philosophical position remained steadfast; the political expression had become radicalized.

Thoreau's political philosophy rested on one key principle, as famously declared in “Resistance to Civil Government”:

The authority of government, even as such as I am willing to submit to … is still an impure one: to be strictly just it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person or property but what I concede to it…. There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. (1973b, p. 89)

In short, for Thoreau, government, majority rule, and courts of law would never compromise sacrosanct individuality. The quiet militancy of nonviolent, passive resistance reflects a deep and uncompromising resoluteness, and Thoreau's later more overt activism hardly reflected a shift in his basic philosophy, for the essential lesson of “Resistance to Civil Government”— that government must protect the freedom of its citizens—was to be reiterated in later activist writings. Let us consider “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1973c) as illustrative of the themes I wish to emphasize.

This lecture was delivered in 1854 to an abolitionist audience shortly following the abortive attempt to free Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave, from being returned to Virginia (von Frank 1998, pp. 276–85).[22] The federal Fugitive Slave Law had superseded the state's Personal Liberty Laws, which were enacted to protect runaway slaves in the 1840s. Thoreau then, ironically in respect to the clash over states' rights resulting in the Civil War, argued heatedly against the loss of state sovereignty: “The whole military force of the State [Massachusetts] is at the service of a Mr. Suttle, a slaveholder from

Virginia, to enable him to catch a man whom he calls his property; but not a soldier is offered to save a citizen of Massachusetts from being kidnapped!” (Thoreau 1973c, p. 94). And consonant with “Resistance to Civil Government,” Thoreau proclaims a moral law higher than the Constitution, and, more pointedly, the right of the moral individual, in the face of an immoral majority, to assert and enact his own sense of probity (ibid., p. 104). Again, the themes of self-responsibility are clearly declared:

The fate of the country does not depend on how you vote at the polls— the worst man is as strong as the best at that game; it does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballotbox once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning….

Let each inhabitant of the State dissolve his union with her, as long as she delays to do her duty…. Only they are guiltless, who commit the crime of contempt of such a Court. (Ibid., pp. 104–5)

There is a dark streak of elitism in Thoreau's confidence in knowing the Right, in his disdain of the democratic process, and in his lofty self-righteousness.

The key indictment against Thoreau's moral authority is how he casts Burns's rights in his own: Thoreau regards the return of Anthony Burns to enslavement as a critical infringement on his own freedom: “the State has fatally interfered with my lawful business” by interrupting “me and every man on his onward and upward path” (ibid., p. 107). And so the underlying rationale for protest rests on Thoreau's outrage that his own freedom had been compromised—not that of Burns! Here we come squarely to the moral implications of Thoreau's narcissism. I can offer no better critique than that offered by Orestes Brownson about Emerson's Divinity School Address (1838), but which could just as easily have been written about Thoreau:

“The highest good they recognise is an individual good, the realization of order in their own individual souls.” Can a person who adopts this moral rule really be called moral? “Does not morality always propose to us an end separate from our own, above our own, and to which our own good is subordinate?” It is indeed necessary to achieve harmony within the individual soul, but that is only a preliminary step. “Above the good of the individual, and paramount to it, is the good of the universe, the realization of good of creation, absolute good.” The man who forgets himself is “infinitely superior to the man who merely uses others as the means of promoting his own intellectual and spiritual growth.” (Cited and edited by Barbara Packer 1995, p. 437)

So, on the basis of Thoreau's own sense of personal infringement, action was now justified, and he lauded those who acted to free Burns.[23]


Thoreau, in this most public exhortation, cannot remain in the public sector, and instead returns to the private sphere as the ultimate source of action. How then would Thoreau proceed in his everyday life? Or, as he asks, How can one “be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle?” (Thoreau 1973c, p. 108). He quickly answers: in nature—as mediated by a sensitive soul. Thoreau turns, as he did in Walden, to the higher laws and the eternal truths he perceived in the natural world, and thus in the pursuit of his art he affirmed a moral order, as exemplified by natural beauty. Almost rhapsodically, Thoreau closed his tormented remarks by citing the simplest pleasure of observing flowers, in which he found solace for, if not specific answers to, the pressing political questions and moral laxity of his feverish time:

But it chanced the other day that I scented a white waterlily, and a season I had waited for had arrived. It is the emblem of purity. It bursts up so pure and fair to the eye, and so sweet to the scent, as if to show us what purity and sweetness reside in, and can be extracted from, the slime and muck of earth…. What confirmation of our hopes is in the fragrance of this flower! I shall not so soon despair of the world for it, notwithstanding slavery, and the cowardice and want of principle of Northern men. It suggests what kind of laws have prevailed longest and widest, and still prevail, and that the time may come when man's deeds will smell as sweet…. If nature can compound this fragrance still annually, I shall believe her still young and full of vigor, her integrity and genius unimpaired, and that there is virtue even in man, too, who is fitted to perceive and love it. It reminds me that Nature has been partner to no Missouri Compromise. I scent no compromise in the fragrance of the waterlily. (Ibid.)

This passage is noteworthy in three respects: The first is that Thoreau's moral direction is selfdetermined, selfperceived, and ultimately selfcentered as he uses his intercourse with nature as the foundation for his political action. It is evident, then, that he uses no corrective external standard—political or moral principles—and relies entirely on his own sensibility, which to our ears appears precious and even drunk with rapturous delight. Second, given the egocentric character of this essay, Thoreau still is able to move beyond himself and offers his ultimately optimistic prediction about the political process for social justice. Indeed, the reformer, in the very act of arguing his case, must, at some basic level, believe that he might effect change for the better. In Thoreau's case, given that natural laws are the oldest and ultimately the dominant ones, man must—if he only sees what nature provides, that is, if properly attuned to her lessons—achieve the same

kind of social harmony that Thoreau witnesses in the lily. In other words, the transcendental principles sought for the individual may also be applied to man in the collective. This, in short, is his basic political philosophy. Finally, social reform rests on the moral reform of the self, because political action is not determined by a particular crisis but reverberates to the very foundations of the moral agent himself. There can be no retreat from the world's challenges, and Thoreau does not offer some naive gloss in this passage but rather enunciates the key insight first expressed in “Paradise to Be Regained” (in Reform Papers, 1973a), namely, that man must “reform himself” before effecting social reform. As Sherman Paul noted, the central task was “selfreform, which was Thoreau's way of reforming the outward life” (1958, p. 153), and reform here is expressed as the appreciation of nature and the attestation of values consonant with that purpose. Accordingly, before attempting to reform the world, Thoreau's turn to nature was the primary “political” act, albeit personal and private. In the process of truly seeing the beauty and order of nature, Thoreau believed he was provided with the values which would guide his worldly endeavors.

By this reading, the perfectibility of the collective and the reform of the individual each stem from the same crucial source: selfexamination. Thus, whether regarded from the perspective of the political arena of social choice or from that of a particular person's ethics, Thoreau's reform writings derive from his central celebration of individuality, one he achieved through his unique manner of communing with nature. As the intensity of debate surrounding slavery increased, Thoreau's own rhetoric also heightened in intensity, but the basic political themes were already clearly articulated in the moral philosophy of Walden's first draft—the assertion of the individual's sanctity, the willed pursuit of selfimprovement, the denial of false social values at the expense of the attainment of meaningful personal ones, and the centrality of man's relation to nature and the discovery thereby of his own divine character. Thus, we may understand the basic structure of “Resistance to Civil Government” (written during this same period) as an applied civics lesson from the Walden experience. When Thoreau asserts that “the only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right” (1973b, p. 65), he does so fully confident that he has been inspired by the “higher laws” of nature and that he indeed perceives them correctly because “through the exercise of an active conscience a person maintains a transcendent spiritual life” (Gougeon 1995, p. 202). Thoreau's movement from passive resistance to a more rigorous activism is of secondary concern to the underlying moral precept: each individual is responsible for his or her own actions, and the sense of right is not to be found in

the world of social intercourse (i.e., conventional morality or majority rule) but in the private domain of conscience and selfrealized personhood. The structure of moral agency was thus based on individuality—the choice of fulfilling one's own agenda—and the willing of that personal identity along a continuum of perfection.

Thoreau's selfimage of hero, prophet, and political conscience rested on an assured sense of personal identity. But our age is wary of heroes, selfproclaimed or otherwise. And the banner of the self—under which a hero, if there is one, must appear—has been tattered. We are unsettled by the suspicion that the self is but an interpretative scheme, an almost discarded remnant of an eclipsed sociohistorical period. Our very identities seem all too plastic and contingent. And guidelines vanish as mysteriously as they appear. Philosophically, the very notion of selfhood was a problem bequeathed to Thoreau by his own era. What we glean, putting aside the vexing psychological issues, in studying the quest for his personhood is the assertion of the self's reality, and a powerful affirmation at that. From our vantage, this posturing may seem a “conceit” (Cavell 1981, p. 19), but such a judgment says as much about ourselves as about Thoreau. We are deaf to prophets, and we mistrust leaders. In Thoreau's selfcreative effort of making himself into a political voice, we see the moral boundaries of his personhood in highlight. On this note, which addresses the particularly vexing modern conundrum of the self, we most clearly hear Thoreau's trumpet. Is his song a rhapsodic melody or the cacophony of postmodern atonality? In the concluding chapter, we consider Thoreau's basis of moral agency, the putative “triumph of the self.”

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