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1. “I sometimes despair of getting anything quite simple and honest done in this world with the help of men. They would have to be passed through a powerful press first, to squeeze their old notions out of them.” (Walden, 1971, p. 25) [BACK]


2. See n. 14 to chapter 1. [BACK]

3. The use of personal story to frame philosophical questions of moral knowledge is a tradition in Western letters stretching back at least as far as Augustine (354–430), whose own Confessions, through the appeal and power of his introspective narrative, still engage the modern reader. Those Confessions stand stylistically as a triptych: the autobiographical illustration of his philosophical principles forms the first panel (books 1–9); his contemplation of the moral, epistemological, and integrative life of memory, the second (book 10); the direct application of these earlier insights to his immediate imperative—knowing God through Creation—the third (books 11–13). His narrative is so compelling and immediate, however, that too often the modern reader's interest ends with book 9. We mistake his ingenious essay for “simple” autobiography, and so miss the specifically philosophical restatement of the questions by which he shaped his life story, and the answers he has to give. Surely the power of his personal narrative informs and enriches his more formal philosophy, which in itself is an interesting comment about the nature of his discourse. But the critical point to emphasize is that Augustine's Confessions are first and foremost not autobiography but philosophy. [BACK]

4. For instance,

Virtue will be known ere long by her elastic tread.–When man is in harmony with nature. (September 27, 1840, Journal 1, 1981, p. 180)

Virtue is not virtue's face. (November 2, 1840, ibid., p. 193)

My virtue loves to take an airing of the winter's morning—it scents itself, and snuffs its own fragrance in the bracing atmosphere of the fields—more than in the sluggishness of the parlor. (January 2, 1841, ibid., p. 215)

We cannot well do without our sins, they are the highway of our virtue. (March 22, 1842, ibid., p. 385)

5. He continued:

Though the youth at last grows indifferent, the laws of the universe are not indifferent, but are forever on the side of the most sensitive. Listen to every zephyr for some reproof, for it is surely there, and he is unfortunate who does not hear it. We cannot touch a string or move a stop but the charming moral transfixes us. Many an irksome noise, go a long way off, is heard as music, a proud sweet satire on the meanness of our lives. (Walden, 1971, pp. 218–19)

This theme was to appear again and again in Thoreau's Journal in different guises, many of them poetic and lyrically evocative. I cite but one from his early period:

The future will no doubt be a more natural life than this. We shall be acquainted and shall use flowers and stars, and sun and moon, and occupy this nature which now stands over and around us. We shall reach up to the stars and pluck fruit from many parts of the universe. We shall purely use the earth and not abuse it–God is in the breeze and whispering leaves and we shall then hear him. We live in the midst of all the beauty and grandeur that was ever described or conceived.


We have hardly entered the vestibule of Nature. It was here be assured under these heavens that the gods intended our immortal life should pass—these stars were set to adorn and light it—these flowers to carpet it[.] (August 26, 1843, Journal 1, 1981, p. 460)

6. See n. 15 to chapter 1. [BACK]

7. Thoreau wrote frequently and passionately of mythic heroes, with whom he closely identified. For example, consider this early Journal entry:

Virtue is the deed of the bravest. It is that art which demands the greatest confidence and fearlessness. Only some hardy soul ventures upon it—it deals in what it has no experience in. The virtuous soul possess a fortitude and hardihood which not the grenadier nor pioneer can match. It never shrunk.

It goes singing to its work. Effort is its relaxation. The rude pioneer work of this world has been done by the most devoted worshippers of beauty. Their resolution has possessed a keener edge than the soldier's. In winter is their campaign, they never go into quarters. They are elastic under the heaviest burden—under the extremest physical suffering. (January 1, 1842, Journal 1, 1981, p. 354)

8. McIntosh (1974) discusses this passage in pp. 114 ff. Self-Consciousness necessarily separates the Romantic observer from nature, but the character of that relationship is variegated. McIntosh accepts Thoreau's complex relationship to nature as a “programmed inconsistency” (ibid., p. 17), and I think this is a fair reading:

[Thoreau] is trying to do justice to a single concept and a single reality that is itself full of contradiction and inconsistency. One purpose of Thoreau's programmed inconsistency is to make sense of nature as a whole, to comprehend the multiplicity of the entire natural world he lived in. The diverse meanings of “nature” shade into each other…. Taken together, they are to be regarded not as an array of concepts, to be separated from each other in the manner of Lovejoy, but as comprising a single beloved realm, a theatre of operation for Thoreau's psyche. (Ibid., p. 26) [BACK]

9. Porte (1966, p. 30) quotes a passage from Emerson's Journal (1828) that offers some interesting insight into the later psychological dynamics between Thoreau and his mentor:

“It is a peculiarity … of humour in me, my strong propensity for strolling. I deliberately shut up my books … put on my old clothes … and slink away to the whortleberry bushes and slip with the greatest satisfaction into a little cowpath where I am sure I can defy observation. This point gained, I solace myself for hours with picking blueberries and other trash of the woods, far from fame, behind the birchtrees. I seldom enjoy hours as I do these. I remember them in winter; I expect them in spring” (J, II, 244–45 [July 10, 1828, Emerson 1963, pp. 136–37])…. Emerson … had apparently ceased to remember his golden hours …by 1851, when he jotted down in his journal a notable sentence which, in enlarged form, was to serve as part of his funeral oration on Thoreau eleven years later: “Thoreau wants a little ambition in his mixture. Fault of this, instead of being the head of American engineers, he is captain of huckleberry party” (J, VIII, 228 [Journal CO, May-November 1851, Emerson 1975, p. 400])…. There is clearly a personal animus in the statement. [J in Porte's citations = Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. E. W. Emerson and W. E. Forbes (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin; Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1909–14)] [BACK]

10. As Leo Marx observed of this ethos, “What concerns him [Thoreau] is the hope of making the word one with the thing, the notion that the naked fact

of sensation, if described with sufficient precision, can be made to yield its secret—its absolute meaning. This is another way of talking about the capacity of nature to ‘produce delight’—to supply value and meaning” (1964, p. 249). A useful compendium of what Thoreau himself wrote on writing has been compiled by Burkett and Steward (1989). [BACK]

11. See n. 7 to chapter 3. [BACK]

12. Respecting Kierkegaard's insight, Wittgenstein drew the full implications beyond spiritual discourse. Indeed, the limits of language defined Wittgenstein's philosophy, which, for better or for worse, dominated twentieth-century analytic philosophy. Wittgenstein urged that one should abandon the hopes of developing language suitable for experience that is in fact unsuitable for public discourse. According to him, there is no logical basis by which we might understand ordinary language, bequeathing a tradition of analysis that restricts the province of logic to logic; of knowledge (in a empirical positivist fashion) to science; and of ethics to the metaphysical, where philosophy's analytical tools were inapplicable. His major message was that we are on very tenuous ground when assessing the logical basis of our language, and for that matter in understanding our very thought (for language and thought are inseparable). Philosophy's role was then to “shew the fly the way out of the flybottle” (Wittgenstein 1953, p. 103e), or, in other words, to demonstrate our faulty thinking when we believe we have finalized a philosophical problem. On this view, philosophy's primary role is to disenchant us from thinking that we are offering logical or analytical “solutions.” The narratives we weave around the classic philosophical issues are simply delusional if we expect some kind of logical formulation. In Wittgenstein's terminology, questions of this kind are “meaningless” because they are bereft of final adjudication. In contrast, such a question as, “Is it raining?” demands a meaningful response: “Yes” or “No.” So for Wittgenstein, only certain questions were “meaningful,” and he turned to science as a paragon of such inquiry. Scientists deal with meaningful questions, because the answers investigators glean from nature may be verified by objective means. This is the realm of “facts” as commonly understood. For other kinds of “facts”—personal, supernatural, ethical— language restricts and even distorts. Of course, we must attempt to communicate, but philosophy was dealt the responsibility of showing the faulty logic employed in such discussions, albeit without necessarily offering a better means to communicate. He thus offers us a rather “lonely” solution, one Thoreau—at least temperamentally—would have understood. We each live in a solipsistic and insulated world of our own making, but on the other hand, we now might at least comprehend the locks and chains in which language ensnares us. Insight must balance the existential quandary. [BACK]

13. With this understanding of writing, Cavell presents a certain ontological condition of words:

[T]he occurrence of a word is the occurrence of an object whose placement always has a point, and whose point always lies before and beyond it. “The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement. Their truth is instantly translated; its literal monument alone remains” [Walden, 1971,

p. 325]. ((Wittgenstein in the Investigations (section 432) records a related perception: “Every sign by itself seems dead.” [Wittgenstein 1953, p. 128 e])) (Cavell 1981, p. 27) [BACK]

14. See n. 12 above. [BACK]

15. The strife which occurs within is an early theme for Thoreau: “A glorious strife seems waging within us, yet so noiselessly that we but just catch the sound of the clarion ringing of victory, borne to us on the breeze.– –There are in each the seeds of a heroic ardor, Seeds, there are seeds enough which need only to be stirred in with the soil where they lie, by an inspired voice or pen, to bear fruit of a divine flavor” (July 15, 1838,Journal 1, 1981, p. 49). [BACK]

16. This theme appears in Thoreau's earliest notebooks and is evidence of a grandiose vision that remained a powerful selfimage, one that no doubt has fed Thoreau's various psychological analysts (e.g., Bridgman 1982; Lebrieux 1977, 1984). I doubt that the imagery is solely metaphoric, and there is a messianic element which is difficult to ignore:

Cease not thou drummer of the night, thou too shalt have thy reward. The stars and the firmament hear thee, and their aisles shall echo thy beat till its call is answered, and the forces are mustered. The universe is attentive as a little child to thy sound, and trembles as if each stroke bounded against an elastic vibrating firmament. I should be contented if the night never ended—for in the darkness heroism will not be deferred, and I see fields where no hero has couched his lance. (June 19, 1840, Journal 1, 1981, p. 132)

The requirement, anticipating Nietzsche, is will, and also like Nietzsche, only a prophet of great personal strength might be successful:

Who knows how incessant a surveillance a strong man may maintain over himself—how far subject passion and appetite to reason, and lead the life his imagination paints? (Thoreau, May 21, 1839, Journal 1, 1981, p. 73) [BACK]

17. Of the many biblical narratives of such strife, the story of Jacob's return to “the land” he fled as a result of usurping his brother, Esau's, inheritance is particularly illuminating to our theme:

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32: 24–28)

The “man” is an agent of the divine, and Jacob's nighttime fight is the stuff of dreams. The setting is the eve of the critical meeting to take place with Esau the next day—fraught with danger and even guilt anxiety. It is quite apparent that Jacob is wrestling with the complex interplay of his return with a new identity, rich with wives and children, to a land he had fled under the most suspicious of circumstances. He prevails in the wrestling match, despite suffering a grievous blow, and is able to extract a blessing. The form of this blessing is most interesting, for it takes the form of a new name, signifying a new self. No longer was

he the Supplanter (25.26; 27.36) but Israel (35.10), which probably means “God rules” and is interpreted to mean “The one who strives with God” (Metzger and Murphy 1991, p. 43, note to Genesis 32:28). He may just as easily have struggled with himself and emerged with a new name, a new identity, and with it a new ethical mandate. [BACK]

18. Lebeaux asserts that Thoreau wished to become his own father in naming himself as part of a developmental selfassertion (1984, p. 15; see also 1977, pp. 70–71); Bridgman considers Thoreau's attempts at “selfconquest … a fantasy” (1982, p. 26). [BACK]

19. Cavell has drawn identifications with Jeremiah and Ezekiel (1981, pp. 17 ff.). Although he also sees Thoreau's writing assuming a heroic pose (ibid., p. 21), this persona is subordinated to the prophet or perhaps “poetprophet” (ibid., p. 19). Cavell is certainly correct in drawing out Walden' s biblical parallels, but at the same time he does not pay due service to Thoreau's immediate identification with the Greek tradition and the frequent citations to those ancient heroes. (Another allusion—in a rather minor essay—to Thoreau as prophet is offered by Groff [1961].) [BACK]

20. Walter Harding may have expressed the matter most succinctly: “Nowhere in the past or present could Thoreau find his ideal man. He could only hope that such a man would develop in the future. He concentrated therefore upon developing such a man. And consistent with his philosophy, he began with himself” (1959, p. 155). Joseph Wood Krutch draws a similar conclusion: “Thoreau's principal achievement was not the creation of system but the creation of himself, and his principal literary work was, therefore, the presentation of that self in the form of a selfportrait to which even those descriptions and expositions which seem most objective are in fact contributions” (1948, p. 11). The parallel with Nietzsche—in the guise of Zarathustra—is striking, but this theme, of course, is a dominant one in Romanticism more generally (see, e.g., Garber 1982; Porte 1991; Taylor 1989) and thus hardly unique to Thoreau. Indeed, one might easily argue that Thoreau identifies as a Romantic in large measure as he seeks his self-actualization, or as Joel Porte put it: “His great theme, of course, was renewal, the Romantic myth of infinite selfpossibility and self extension” (1991, p. 164). Taylor notes that the “expressive” turn of Romanticism may be characterized as the newly discovered ability, and imperative, to explore and express the inexhaustible inner domain of the self: “To the extent that digging to the roots of our being takes us beyond ourselves, it is to the larger nature from which we emerge. But this we only gain access to through its voice in us. This nature, unlike Augustine's God, cannot offer us a higher view on ourselves beyond our own selfexploration” (1989, p. 390). And thus the individual must explore himself and nature with creative imagination to uncover the radical subjectivism and the internalization of moral sources. The virtuous life is then one of selfseeking, self-responsibility, in an everdemanding quest for some moral ideal. [BACK]

21. To make Thoreau's political posture attractive, Len Gougeon makes the salient point that what Thoreau “ultimately discovered in his dealings with society

is that the reform of individuals, through the development of virtuous selfculture, can only occur in an environment where personal freedom is guaranteed. Political, spiritual, and physical oppression, especially in the form of the institution of slavery, must be actively opposed” (1995, p. 196). As discussed at the end of this chapter, I regard this rationalization of Thoreau's political posture as generous and forgiving. [BACK]

22. Thoreau was obviously outraged by this episode. “I have lived for the last month … with the sense of having suffered a vast and indefinite loss. I did not know at first what ailed me. At last it occurred to me that what I had lost was a country” (Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” 1973c, p. 106). The trial of Anthony Burns and the linked proceedings against those who attempted to forcibly free him from jail are detailed by von Frank (1998), who situates this episode within the broader political and intellectual contexts of the period. In particular, like Len Gougeon before him (1990), von Frank cites the Transcendentalists, Emerson in particular, as lending moral leadership to the abolitionist movement: “In the thought of the Transcendentalists … the concept of a law higher than any that space and time could show had been extensively explored, not as a tool for blocking the compromise of 1850, but in the broadest sense of freeing slaves or (what is the same thing) producing a free point of view. There is an implication in this that no point of view can be truly free that is also predominantly instrumental” (von Frank 1998, p. 282). [BACK]

23. Thoreau can hardly be regarded as subscribing “to what have become the defining elements of the standard account of civil disobedience in contemporary political theory—elements designed to distinguish it from revolution— nonviolence, the limited nature and purpose of actions in violation of the law, and voluntary acceptance of punishment” (Rosenblum 1996, p. xxiv). To engage in civil disobedience, to the contrary, was to exercise conscientious action; democratic authority was thus regarded as only conditional (ibid., p. xxvi). [BACK]

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