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Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; also that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant had grown.

Nietzsche [1886] 1966, p. 14

[A] man's vision is the great fact about him. Who cares for Carlyle's reasons, or Schopenhauer's, or Spencer's? A philosophy is the expression of a man's intimate character, and all definitions of the universe are but the deliberately adopted reactions of human characters upon it.

James [1909] 1987, p. 639


Nietzsche and James, in the passages set out above, were either repeating or rediscovering Johann Gottlieb Fichte's own dictum, “The kind of philosophy one chooses depends upon what kind of person one is” (Wissenschaftslehre [1797], quoted by Neuhouser 1990, p. 56). Whoever said it first, and there are undoubtedly ancient antecedents, the sentiment summarizes my own view. I similarly hold the reciprocity of a philosophy reflecting character and character expressed in a philosophy. In this regard, Thoreau is a particularly vivid case study, and indeed, one can barely understand his philosophy independent of his life work and the personality that lived it. But more, he also exemplifies how the entire enterprise is grounded in the moral personality. In this latter respect, Nietzsche was specifically referring to how value—what is chosen as important, indeed as critical, to a serious and deliberate life—must serve as the very foundation of any guiding philosophy or spirituality. And James built his Principles of Psychology ([1890] 1983) around the precept that our “interest in things” (p. 304) not only organizes our world but is the clue to understanding consciousness and the very notion of the self:

Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me.My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind—without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. (Ibid., pp. 380–81; emphasis in original)

As a phenomenologist, James sought to show not only how we actively and deliberately select sensory experience but also how the philosophical consequences of such an insight frame our understanding of consciousness. What and how we see is largely informed by what we want to see and can see as determined by the structure of our knowing, a value system of the senses and their cognition. For instance, I enter a room looking for my copy of Walden. Of the myriad visual details available to me, I quickly fasten on a particular text, which, except for some very minor details, is almost identical with the other volumes of the Princeton edition,The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau. My interest, the value structure of that moment, determines not only my seeking that particular book but the very cognitive focusing required to do so. From this almost trivial example we might extrapolate to a grand vision of nature, which is, indeed, I maintain, how we should “read” Thoreau. To be sure, we have many criteria by which we select our impressions and thus mold our experience. Here, I wish to explore how an epistemology is informed by a specifically moral vision. So there is a twopronged issue to explicate. First, for a philosopher, “nothing whatever is impersonal,

and above all, his morality bears decided and decisive witness to who he is,” that is, to the innermost nature of his character (Nietzsche [1886] 1966, p. 14); and second, the value structure of thought determines to a greater or lesser degree what one sees, and therefore what one knows. Thus I will attempt to draw such a philosophical, ultimately moral, portrait of Thoreau by looking both at the man and at his philosophy in order to achieve a composite, and thereby more complete, understanding in both of these domains, the moral and the epistemological.

It has often been remarked how philosophy reflects the philosopher, how character and personality may be articulated in various conceptual projects (e.g., Atwood and Stolorow 1993), and Thoreau has endlessly fascinated his students in their attempts to tie together the threads of his thought with the rich intensity and eccentricity of his life. While commenting on Thoreau's evolution of thought, I do not specifically follow the biographical path but instead adopt a philosopher's stance in showing how Thoreau's metaphysics of the self informs and guides each aspect of his multifarious project, where each topic must relate to the overarching questions, How did Thoreau situate himself in the cosmos? What indeed is that problematic self, and what are the metaphysics underlying it? How did the Romantic vision of the person lead to the essential problems with which Thoreau grappled?

Thoreau has a certain “plasticity.” He lived multiple personae: Romantic poet, champion of rugged individualism, naturalist, American patriot and social reformer, middleclass misanthrope, mystic, Transcendentalist, prophet, and on. We have ready testaments for each of these aspects of a life which in many ways was both a failure and a heroic venture. Both in his time and in ours, Thoreau is vilified as a nonconformist ne'erdowell or celebrated as a key member of the American pantheon, an architect of our contemporary consciousness—a physician to our discontent. His reputation as seer largely rests on Walden, a text more widely read in American literature courses than any other.Walden is a “solution” of the question of how to express nature, whether “nature” be thought of as the external natural environment or as the internal, wild, and natural self. These two poles are expressed in a myth of Thoreau's making, namely, that we each potentially possess the heroic ability to elevate our respective lives by conscious effort, by deliberate moral choice. That choice, he insists, requires the rejection of a material, moneydriven economy in favor of an economy of personal renewal resting on an awakening to a greater reality: the world of the spirit found in nature. In naming the wild, celebrating nature, and identifying our true self with communal nature, humankind's deepest divinity might be

discovered and released from its shackles. Thoreau's standing rests on how one regards this call to seek our deepest identity, irrespective of how we orient ourselves to environmentalism. The sanctity of nature—environmental ethics writ large—is perhaps central to Thoreau's own views, but even deeper than those concerns is the primacy of the identity of the self.

Thoreau also polarizes us, and in so doing, he reenacts in us the deep attitudes of his detractors and followers. Apparently, none is neutral. Why? Because he challenges us at the level of moral reckoning: he demands that we declare our own views of nature, society, and ultimately ourselves. In announcing what he values, Thoreau makes us confront our own values, for in word and deed he challenges our complacency, demanding that we respond to his summons for a new ethic. He marshals his rhetorical power so that we must respond, we cannot remain complacent; and thus he breaks our silence. In the service of that moral accounting, Thoreau marshals his epistemological project as well as the various efforts at social reform. But more than crying for a sensitivity to nature or a call for public reform, he calls us to reform ourselves. So in asking us, What indeed do we value?, Thoreau initiates a dialogue with our moral personalities. And he begins that dialogue by exposing himself to our scrutinizing his own selfinspection.

But a psychological portrait is not offered here. To what degree Thoreau suffered, or what inner dynamic might describe his inner conflicts, is indeterminate, even irrelevant to this discussion. What is of interest is how he consciously dealt with his existential state and what he bequeathed us as a testament of his response. Thoreau's autobiography—the Journal and his other published writings—reveals as much as we need to know: Thoreau was keenly aware of the metaphysical instability of the self, most evident in its groping for knowledge about the world, in its yearning to seek its own grounding in that world, and, perhaps most fundamentally, in the study of its own split consciousness. This must remain the focus of our interest. We have much philosophical discussion of the general epistemological and metaphysical crisis which appeared in the mid-nineteenth-century. Thoreau both illustrated its outline and then offered a response to that challenge.

From at least shortly after his graduation from college, he had already set his sights on the moral work that would occupy him throughout his life. The trajectory of his thought and work seem to me clear from his earliest Journal entries at age twenty, and while there was significant development through the publication of Walden at age thirtyfour, the philosophical project appears quite constant—a view at odds with that of other critics who have traced his literary development (e.g., Adams and Ross 1988), his science (e.g., Walls 1995), or his view of nature (e.g., McGregor 1997). That is not to say that

Thoreau's mature musings were the “same” as his youthful musings. Ironically perhaps, as Thoreau discharged Emerson, he more fully and enthusiastically embraced Transcendentalism between the springs of 1851 and 1852. In a careful textual analysis, Stephen Adams and Donald Ross (1988, pp. 155 ff.) have shown how Thoreau assumed a different vocabulary describing his attitude toward nature and poetry, a process they call a “conversion” but which might be better referred to as a crystallization, endorsement, or confirmation.[2] The difference between these latter characterizations and the first suggests that the Romantic elements were present before 1851 and only became better articulated as Thoreau more fully realized his mature philosophical attitude. After all, we have strong early evidence for his sympathy to nature, his jaundiced view of objectivity and its scientific expression (see chapter 4), his endorsement of intuition and conscience, and his strong aesthetic and spiritual sense of being. But after 1851, his style changes, shifting from references to classical sources to more contemporary citations. He uses “wild” and all of its variants much more liberally; “sympathy” (see, for example, Journal entries of July 18 and July 23, 1851; January 26, 1852) and “imagination” (see, for example, 1851 Journal entries for July 11th, August 21st, and December 20th) appear more frequently and with deepened significance; and finally, a certain exuberance about life, himself, and his connection to nature punctuate the Journal of this period. Integral to these shifts is a certain self-consciousness, also part of the Romantic temperament: “My practicalness [empiricism] is not to be trusted to the last…. I begin to be transcendental and show where my heart is” (June 7, 1851,Journal 3, 1990, p. 244).[3]

All of this attests to a Romantic sensibility coming forth—the expressiveness of the self, reaching out through spirit and poesis to an expanded vision of the cosmos and his place in it. Coincident with his renewed efforts on Walden, Thoreau wrote at the emergence of spring of a new vitality and hope—no less than a prayer for his own salvation:

My life partakes of infinity. The air is as deep as our natures…. I go forth to make new demands on life. I wish to begin this summer well—to do something in it worthy of it & of me–To transcend my daily routine–& that of my townsmen to have my immortality now—that it be in the quality of my daily life. To pay the greatest price—the—greatest tax of any man in Concord–& enjoy the most!! I will give all I am for my nobility. I will pay all my days for my success. I pray that the life of this spring & summer may ever lie fair in my memory. May I dare as I have never done–may I persevere as I have never done. May I purify myself anew as with fire & water—soul & body–May my melody not be wanting to the season. May I gird myself to be a hunter of the beautiful that naught escape me–May I

attain to a youth never attained[.] I am eager to report the glory of the universe–may I be worthy to do it–To have got through with regarding human values so as not to be distracted from regarding divine values. It is reasonable that a man should be something worthier at the end of the year than he was at the beginning. (March 15, 1852,Journal 4, 1992, p. 390)

And so he began again to revise his reflections on his life at Walden Pond. Central to that reconsideration was a radical insight concerning time and his own temporality (see Peck 1990; also chapter 1 here) and, closely linked, a reassessment of his personal goals. The elliptical reference he gives in Walden about the reason why he went to the woods and why he left is more forthrightly addressed in the Journal, but as he himself admits, “Why I left the woods? I do not think that I can tell” (January 22, 1852,Journal 4, 1992, p. 275). Still, he offers an insight:

Perhaps if I lived there much longer I might live there forever–One would think twice before he accepted heaven on such terms–A ticket to Heaven must include tickets to Limbo—Purgatory–& Hell. Your ticket to the boxes admits you to the pit also. And if you take a cabinpassage you can smoke at least forward of the engine.–You have the liberty of the whole boat. But no I do not wish for a ticket to the boxes—nor to take a cabin passage. I will rather go before the mast & on the deck of the world. I have no desire to go “abaft the engine[.]” (Ibid.)

Thoreau truly was not satisfied with any permanence, reading his own “wildness” as an incessant need for “freedom.” In this context it was the freedom of a perpetual search of himself, and this too is part of his abiding Romanticism.

There is, of course, a metatheme, developed during this same period, that addresses the question of personal purpose, the agenda of living (Adams and Ross 1988, p. 172).Walden does offer an answer to the enigmatic question why Thoreau “left the woods.” In a dialogue between a Hermit and a Poet, Thoreau thrashes out the course of his life:

Shall I go to heaven or afishing? If I should soon bring this meditation to an end, would another so sweet occasion be likely to offer? I was as near being resolved into the essence of things as ever I was in my life. I fear my thoughts will not come back to me…. There never is but one opportunity of a kind. (Walden, 1971, pp. 224–25)

Thoreau indeed goes “fishing” in a return to the world: “Well, then, let's be off. Shall we to Concord? There's good sport there if the water be not too high” (ibid.). He again pursues various agendas—some mundane, others of

vast philosophical import. He would continue to seek the unity of the world, the arrest of time, the poetic metaphors of life, the scientific insight of nature—all in the quest to know what was real for him, both ontologically and morally. So in some sense,Walden crystallized a composite view which pulled each of these concerns into some coherence, and which he may well have regarded with a profound sense of completeness (Richardson 1986). Yet in another sense, reflecting the metaphysics of his own self, Thoreau could not be satisfied with any “answer,” and so he continued to explore all the subjects previously approached. Although that pursuit was essentially structured by the mature completion of his magnum opus (in 1854), there is an unmistakable inward turning, exemplified by the massive expansion of his Journal, which became the central focus of his creative endeavors. His observations of nature seem to have a new intensity and clarity. This was achieved at a high personal cost.

As even early Journal entries indicate, the seeds of solitude had been sown long before Thoreau fully realized that his youthful dreams of heroic leadership were not to be fulfilled. At age twenty-four, he wrote presciently of what would become the Walden Pond experiment, and more generally, the posture of his life:

I want to go soon and live away by the pond where I shall hear only the wind whispering among the reeds–It will be a success if I shall have left myself behind, But my friends ask what I will do when I get there? Will it not be employment enough to watch the progress of the seasons? (December 24, 1841,Journal 1, 1981, p. 347)

This is precisely what Thoreau eventually did, formalizing what had heretofore been intermittent excursions:

I sit in my boat on walden—playing the flute this evening—and see the perch, which I seem to have charmed, hovering around me—and the moon travelling over the ribbed bottom—and feel that nothing but the wildest imagination can conceive of the manner of life we are living. Nature is a wizzard. The Concord nights are stranger than the Arabian nights. (May 27, 1841, ibid., p. 311)

Thoreau went to the pond and played his flute, putting a spell not only on the fish but upon himself. During this period he was extensively reading Eastern religious writings, and the solitude he sought was critical for the mystical experiences he craved. This posturing may be regarded as a pushpull phenomenon: a manifestation of his incipient misanthropy and thus a countermove against the society of men, as well as a pull toward a primary spiritual communion. In either or both cases, Thoreau recognized the dual

need for privacy (“I cannot think nor utter my thought unless I have infinite room” [March 22, 1842,Journal 1, 1981, p. 385]) and an existential reality about himself:

How alone must our life be lived–We dwell on the seashore and none between us and the sea–Men are my merry companions—my fellow pilgrims—who beguile the way, but leave me at the first turn in the road—for none are travelling one road so far as myself. (March 13, 1841, Journal 1, 1981, p. 288)

Thoreau eventually was to regard his solitude (always denying “loneliness”) as a virtue, one he fully described in Walden (its fifth chapter) and unabashedly admitted in an early Journal entry: “Whoever has had one thought quite lonely—and could consciously digest that in solitude, knowing that none might accept it, may rise to the height of humanity—and overlook all living men as from a pinnacle” (April 10, 1841,Journal 1, 1981, p. 300). In solitude, Thoreau would garner himself as a leader, a hero, a prophet. The Journal is replete with such allusions (more fully discussed in chapter 6).

Thoreau's youthful selfabsorption was later replaced with keen attention to the otherness of the natural world and his place in it. Following the Walden experiment, the Journal testifies to an endless search for the meaning of nature and the corresponding knowing self. I will consider that evolution of thought and sensibility in this sketch of “the mind of a moralist,” for an abiding and relentlessly recursive selfevaluation undergirds this portrait of Thoreau. His was a voice that beckons us to address the apparently irresolvable dilemma of self-consciousness facing that chasm between a perceiving self and its world. Thoreau enacted a classic Romantic struggle: establishing a firm and abiding relation with nature, even a union, yet recognizing that this aspiration is dangerous, even misguided, since the self would, in its merger, be lost. Some students of the Romantics see this poetic quest as transfiguring an alienated nature to one redeemed, while others read an unreconciled, alienated nature whose pursuit is tragic. Thoreau lived with both aspects and characteristically played these themes as a complex counterpoint.[4] He was well aware of these conflicting movements, and his typically Romantic introspective cognizance reflects a deeper source of inquiry as he engaged in perplexing and oftentimes agonizing meditations on the nature of his personhood and the meaning of his life in the context of nature. Thoreau offered an original response to this Romantic imbroglio.

Much of Thoreau's writing may be heard as the turning of a creaking axle, whose linchpin, consciousness, holds the entire enterprise together. As Leo Marx wrote,


Thoreau is clear, as Emerson seldom was, about the location of meaning and value. He is saying that it does not reside in the natural facts or in social institutions or in anything “out there,” but in consciousness. It is a product of imaginative perception, of the analogy-perceiving, metaphormaking, mythopoetic power of the human mind. For Thoreau the realization of the golden age is, finally, a matter of private and, in fact, literary experience. (1964, p. 264)

Laurence Buell (perhaps ironically) aptly draws out the key implication of this reading: “Thoreau was not really that interested in nature as such; nature was a screen for something else” (1995, p. 11).[5] I would agree with the focus on self-consciousness as the locus of Thoreau's project, but I think we err in telescoping three different dimensions of “mind” into some single realm of consciousness: the private world consists of selfaware consciousness and another domain of unmediated experience, which is, in fact, not conscious but rather preconscious or unconscious. A third realm, the public world, reckons the processed word, written or spoken, to “read” or “hear” thought. Consciousness then mediates raw experience as processed thought, or as Thoreau put it, “the pen” is the fulcrum, or “lever” (August 4, 1841,Journal 1, 1981, p. 315), that allows him to lift experience, memory, and emotion from the depths of preand unconsciousness to the surface of the public forum. Rightly regarded as the nucleus of his work, consciousness must also be acknowledged in some sense as only a “solvent,” the necessary medium through which unmediated, unselfconscious experience assumes articulated value and meaning.

Questions of consciousness aside, Thoreau also aspired to mystical states—the suspension of selfawareness—and this aspect must also be considered.[6] He reveled in the mystical moments of pure communion—experience most genuine and authentic—but his polished literary product can only serve as a translation or distillation of that experience. Thoreau's mystical experiences are in this sense “lost,” remaining as faint echoes in his own allusions to them, and thus we cannot confidently factor them into the complex calculus of his project. Due to their elusive character, I have almost allowed Thoreau's mystical visions to fall outside my own analysis. But because they were an important reservoir of his experience, their influence must be acknowledged. While Thoreau sought such mystical experiences, he also recognized that they served principally as a well of inspiration as he moved beyond the isolation of the mystical state to his public role as seer. He was no starryeyed mystic, and he exercised the full force of his critical faculties to explore even those most intimate experiences for greater literary purposes. In short, mystical revelry was only one aspect of his self-consciousness,

one source from which he drew to write.[7] This selfconscious, splitscreen image of the self—the self experiencing and the self digesting the experience—appears at various sites of this study, for what intrigues me is not only how Thoreau regarded his world but how he attempted to understand the character of his selfhood and resolve the multiple tensions of its confrontation with the world and itself.

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