Transcendental Ethos:
A Study of Thoreauís Social Philosophy and
Its Consistency in Relation to Antebellum Reform

By Michael J. Frederick

A Thesis in the Field of History for the Degree of Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies, Harvard University, November 1998, © Michael J. Frederick, 1998

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"Frederick's thoroughgoing study highlights the basics of the extraordinarily unified belief-system that underlay Thoreau's approach to nature and spirit, and made him a totally original philosopher. It's great background for understanding some of the most fruitful trends in Thoreau studies right now, especially Walls and Berger on HDT as a scientific observer, Hodder and Dean on HDT's spiritual quest, and Sperber on HDT's 'cycles and psyche'."

- Randall Conrad, Director, The Thoreau Project

Table of Contents
I.      Introduction
II.     Antebellum Reform
III.   Transcendental Ethos
IV.   Early Thoreauvian Themes
V.    Later Thoreauvian Themes
VI.   Conclusion
VII.   Bibliography


        This study investigated the consistency of Henry David Thoreauís social philosophy in relation to Antebellum reform. Some critics have argued that Thoreau was influenced by radical Abolitionism to such an extent that it led him to defend John Brownís raid on Harperís Ferry Virginia in 1859 on the eve of the American Civil War. Many believe "A Plea for Captain John Brown" is an indication of just how far Thoreau departed from his earlier views on reform, especially those expressed in his essay on "Resistance to Civil Government."

        A close examination of Thoreauís writings reveals that he was not, however, a pacifist as is commonly assumed. "A Plea," which uses the phrase, "resistance to tyranny," is remarkably consistent with the epistemology and moral sentiment of Thoreauís earlier views on reform including "Resistance to Civil Government." Thoreauís reform essays are structured on the basis of Transcendentalist principles and do not necessarily represent a radical break with tradition. Kantian idealism, French Eclecticism, and Unitarian ethics are underlying aspects of Thoreauís Transcendental ethos. An understanding of these and their subsequent influence on New England Transcendentalism helps to elucidate some of the apparent contradictions in Thoreauís political essays. Apart from various influences and qualifiers, Thoreauís reform essays are remarkable consistent contextually as well.

    Special thanks to Thomas Blanding for referring me to the works of C.G. Jung.

    To Stacia Frederick

Michael J. Frederick is the Executive Director of the Thoreau Society.

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