Transcendental Ethos

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

© Michael J. Frederick, 1998

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I. Introduction: Thoreau Historiography in Retrospect

[1]        Popular perceptions of Henry David Thoreau may shape the way that scholars interpret or wish to interpret his ideas, which are often associated with the 1960's, the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protestors. Members of both movements referred to his essay on "Resistance to Civil Government." Martin Luther King, Jr., gives specific credit to the essay and its subsequent influence on his civil rights campaign. Protestors of the Vietnam War could easily refer to such passages in Walden as: "Only the defeated and deserters go to the wars, cowards that run away and enlist." Or: "Patriotism is a maggot in their heads."(1) Thoreau at other times has been associated with radical politics and anarchism. Many adherents believe his ideas are universally applicable over time. Today he is regularly associated with the environmental movement and such popular culture movements as rock-singer Don Henleyís Save Walden Woods Project.

[2]        While he has gained popular recognition, Thoreau was relatively unknown to the general public during his own lifetime. Perhaps the greatest boon to his popularity in our own time has been his association with Mahatma Gandhiís nonviolent resistance campaign, known as Satyagraha, against the British government in South Africa and in India where it reached full fruition. Gandhi cited Thoreau as one of the foremost influences in his life. He had read "Resistance to Civil Government" as it appeared posthumously under the title of "Civil Disobedience" in an 1866 anthology of Thoreauís excursions and political essays entitled A Yankee in Canada, and borrowed the term civil disobedience as an English equivalent of his own term Satyagraha. While Gandhi gave him full credit for the term, scholars cannot establish with certainty whether Thoreau ever used the term himself or whether it was an anonymous editorial addition to his essay.

[3]        The title, too, is an important consideration that should not be entirely overlooked or misjudged in its importance. In the term civil disobedience, the word civil can refer to citizens who resist an unjust law either violently or nonviolently, or it can mean polite and non-violent disobedience. If the phrase resistance to civil government is used, the ambiguity is removed. All governments are civil in this sense as they govern citizens; but not all governments are polite or nonviolent. Historians, however, often refer to it by its 1866 title, "Civil Disobedience," rather than by its 1849 title, "Resistance to Civil Government," as it appeared in its only publication during Thoreauís lifetime in Elizabeth Peabodyís Aesthetic Papers.

[4]        Because many scholars have specifically linked Thoreau to Gandhiís political movement it presents a challenge to review his ideas in their historical context detached from predetermined critical perceptions, as in any field is so often the case. Arthur M. Schlesinger, for instance, in his well-received book The American as Reformer, refers to Thoreauís doctrine of "inner regeneration," as a doctrine of passive resistance. Schlesinger concluded that Thoreauís view on "ĎCivil Disobedienceí had more influence on modern India than on his countrymen. . . ."(2) Nor is he alone in his appraisal. Walter Harding, perhaps the best known Thoreau scholar and biographer, wrote of Gandhi: "We know of no other who so well carried out the principles of Thoreau."(3) True, Gandhi tried to live a virtuous life; however, Thoreau never attempted, nor ever considered, leading a national politically based movement.

[5]        When Wendell Glick, the editor of the Princeton edition of Thoreauís reform papers, decided on the 1849 title, "Resistance to Civil Government," rather than the 1866 title, "Civil Disobedience," he was criticized by Harding, the former editor-in-chief. Harding argued that Thoreau changed the original title of the essay before his death in 1862. He defends his position by noting that such stylistic changes are consistent with Thoreauís writing process. True enough, perhaps, yet this assumption nonetheless ignores the historical context in which the essay was first published. Glick defends his position by arguing that his decision was in accordance with standard editorial practice, the Greg theory of copy-text editing.(4) While the Princeton edition of Thoreauís work is historically accurate, several other anthologies still carry the title "Civil Disobedience."

[6]        While Gandhi may have found Thoreauís essay insightful, he never gave it full credit for influencing all aspects of Satyagraha. He called it a "masterly treatise" on the duty of civil disobedience, but recognized that Thoreau confined his disobedience to non-payment of his poll tax. Satyagraha distinctly covered all forms of civil disobedience against an unjust law and was not limited to non-payment of taxes. Also, Gandhi recognized that "Thoreau was not perhaps an out-and-out champion of non-violence," and determined that his position represent only "a branch of satyagraha."(5) Elsewhere, Gandhi wrote: "The statement that I had derived my idea of civil disobedience from the writings of Thoreau is wrong."(6) He explains his resistance efforts were well on their way in South Africa before he had read Thoreauís essay.

[7]        This is not to say that he did not admire Thoreau, and, in this respect, Harding is correct. Gandhi ranked Thoreau among the greatest of several influences in his life. He admired his courage and practical ideals, his virtue, and refers to them often in his own writings. Yet to imply that Thoreauís notions of civil disobedience are analogous to Satyagraha, a national collective political movement, is simply not true. Rather than helping us better to understand Thoreau, such notions may, instead, detract from it.

[8]        Much of the debate on Thoreauís consistency has focused on his essays defending John Brownís raid on Harperís Ferry, Virginia. On the eve of the Civil War in 1859, Brown and his band of men used physical force in a failed attempt to arm and liberate Southern slaves. In "A Plea for Captain John Brown," Thoreau unmistakably sanctions the use of forcible resistance, writing: "I do not wish to kill or be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable."(7) While heroism is a constant theme, either on or beneath the surface of his writing, Thoreau never before gave such a pointed remark on the use of physical force. In discussing this episode, Harding wrote: "The same Thoreau who has so often been associated with the nonviolent resistance of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., clearly went beyond his earlier views of reform in his championing of Brown."(8)

[9]        Scholars wishing to compare Thoreau and Gandhi should keep in mind that Gandhiís notion of nonviolence was as an active rather than a passive force. "It has no room for cowardice, or even weakness," wrote Gandhi, "there is hope for a violent man to be some day non-violent, but there is none for a coward. . . . if we do not know how to defend ourselves, our women and our places of worship by the force of suffering, i.e. non-violence, we must, if we are men, be at least able to defend all these by fighting."(9) Thoreau and Gandhi would have both agreed on this point.

[10]        At other times, Thoreau has been associated with dangerous politics ó radicalism and anarchy. Some critics have tried to show that his principles and tactics were subject to change with little or no basis. Vincent Buranelli, one of Thoreauís staunchest critics, charged him with practicing radical, if not dangerous politics. In "The Case Against Thoreau," Buranelli wrote of Thoreauís political theory: "It points forward to Lenin, the Ďgenius theoreticianí; whose right it is to force a suitable class consciousness on those who do not have it, and to the horrors that resulted from Hitlerís Ďintuitioní of what was best for Germany."(10) Buranelli cites Thoreauís defense of John Brown as evidence attesting to his radicalism and criticizes him for his "allegiance to inspiration rather than to ratiocination and factual evidence"; and concludes, "Thoreauís commitment to personal revelation made him an anarchist."(11)

[11]        Referring to him as an anarchist, solely, presents some difficulties, however, as it ignores the variegated aspects of Thoreauís social philosophy. His desire for self-cultivation and a better government, a free and enlightened State, if you will, is not entirely anarchical. In purely political terms, too, the designation does not seem to suit him well either. Myron Simonís essay on "Thoreau and Anarchism," for example, argues convincingly that Thoreau was not an Anarchist. And today most historians agree with this appraisal. Simon wrote: "One may believe, as such opposed figures as Thomas Aquinas and Hugo Grotius did, in a Higher or ĎNaturalí Law to which civil laws are subordinate, and not be in any sense an anarchist. And one may be an anarchist, as Godwin and Tucker surely were, without subscribing to any manner of Higher Law."(12) Tucker, a New Englander, and other contemporary individualistic anarchists, he points out, do not refer to Thoreau in their writings. Simon adds, the fact that Thoreau "adhered to no recognizable political position made him in his purity an easily appropriated, modifiable symbol of conscientious protest as available to the civil rights and student movements of the 1960's as he had been to Gandhi."(13)

[12]        Nor is anarchism a useful term to apply to nineteenth-century American politics. This is because libertarian politics were confined to adopt the term socialism for their left-wing political movements. George Woodcock noted that "Proudhon was the first man voluntarily to adopt this name of Ďanarchyí for the form of society he envisaged, and actually to mean by that word ó philological stickler that he was ó a society without government."(14) Proudhonís work was not translated into English until 1876.

[13]        Others have tried to link Thoreau exclusively to the image of a solitary individualist contentedly residing at Walden Pond or confining himself to nature excursions free from societal cares. Mark Van Doren, the first to offer an extensive study of Thoreauís journal, concluded: "certainly the troubles of mankind caused him no disturbance."(15) James Goodwin, in "Thoreau and John Brown: Transcendental Politics," argues that Thoreau did not act from "any widespread historical precedents," nor did he "advocate revolution in any understanding of the term commonly held in his time."(16) Goodwin believes Thoreau followed, what he terms, a politics of "separation and seclusion," and that Thoreau was not a social reformer as is commonly assumed. Nevertheless, his ideas were not formed in a vacuum. Such interpretations ignore Thoreauís lifelong commitment to reform. His association with the Lyceum for over twenty-three years is enough to illustrate at least a commitment if not an interest in society, we must grant, and certainly an interest in his hometown of Concord, the political hotbed of New England Yankees and Antebellum reformers.

[14]        The most comprehensive study of his consistency is Wendell Glickís 1950 Ph.D. Dissertation, "Thoreau and Radical Abolitionism: A Study of the Native Background of Thoreauís Social Philosophy." Glick argues that Thoreauís consistency can be judged by his connection with Northern Abolitionism, a nineteenth-century political movement that was essentially nonviolent. The study was perhaps ground breaking in its day, but the debate on Thoreauís consistency needs to be reexamined under the light of recent scholarship.

[15]        Glick says he agrees with Amos Bronson Alcott in calling Thoreau the "Ďbest sample of an indigenous American;í in other words, a synthesis of various native influences which his environment supplied him."(17) His personal feeling is that Thoreau was influenced by radical abolitionism to such an extent that it led him to defend John Brownís raid on Harperís Ferry. He argues "A Plea for Captain John Brown" is an indication of just how far Thoreau had departed from his "long-cherished faith in the adequacy of the Moral Law to satisfy all manís individual and collective needs"; and writes: "There are no two ways about it; in defending Brown Thoreau sacrificed the Ďtruthsí of his Ďreasoní. . . ."(18)

[16]       Still, his conclusion is largely undisputed. It is true that Thoreau, like Emerson, refused to be intimidated by "foolish" consistencies. Walter Harding, in The New Thoreau Handbook, writes:

        Thoreau . . . never claimed to be a systematic philosopher, and he made no attempt to resolve the many competing ideas and attitudes he recorded during his lifetime. Like most of the Transcendentalists, he was essentially eclectic, and as his reading indicates, he was fully capable of adapting ideas from various sources that seemed to be mutually exclusive. In addition, like most other people, he sometimes changed his mind as he grew older or as issues evolved.(19)
Elsewhere, however, Harding alludes to a possible basis for consistency in Thoreauís thought. In The Days of Henry Thoreau, Harding writes: "Whether he was experimenting in life at Walden Pond, going to jail for refusing to pay his poll tax, or defending John Brownís action at Harperís Ferry, he was operating from a base of Transcendentalist principles."(20)

[17]        1). Is Glickís assessment of Thoreau accurate? Thoreauís defense of John Brown may not be entirely inconsistent with the epistemology or moral sentiment of his earlier works. Native influences, I agree, played an important role in the development of his social philosophy. Certainly, he was exposed to radical abolitionism. His mother, Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, and several of his aunts were members of Abolition societies. Thoreau, however, never joined an Abolition society himself. And this was not due to any abstract eccentricities on his own part, but because he was committed to individual reform and motivated by an idealism distinct from Garrisonís Abolitionism.

[18]        2). What constitutes Transcendentalist principles and how do they apply to Thoreauís social philosophy and his attitude toward reform in practice, if at all? Several indigenous influences, for instance, Unitarianism and Scottish Common Sense taught at Thoreauís alma mater, Harvard College, and French Eclecticism, popular then among Unitarians, suggest that Abolitionism was not the sole influence on his political thought. French Eclecticism, which was generally adapted to New England thought, and Unitarianism in particular were springboards to Transcendentalism and are a key to understanding Transcendental principles. Although Thoreau renounced involvement with the church during his lifetime, he was baptized a Unitarian and buried in a Unitarian cemetery. Concerning Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "He was a born protestant. If he slighted and defied the opinions of others, it was only that he was more intent to reconcile his practice with his own belief."(21)

[19]        3). Is Thoreauís social philosophy consistent? Thoreau was not content to withdraw himself completely from society and saw himself as an active citizen committed to individual reform. Various cross currents were at work during the Antebellum period. One can note hints of republican themes, themes of Jacksonian Democracy, and the ideas of manifest destiny, Abolitionism and nonviolence in his writing. Thoreau works these themes into a spiritual or religious context that reflect his special breed of practical idealism and attempts to embrace natural paradoxes over a less real, more artificial model. For this reason, it is difficult to classify him or even speak of his ideas as political doctrines. It is the consistency of his ideas, their internal coherence, and their relation to Antebellum society that concern us, and not a political theory as such.

[20]        4). Does Thoreauís defense of John Brown necessarily contradict the earlier political views of his work, most notably his essay "Resistance to Civil Government?" If we are to understand Thoreau, we must try to understand his relation to Antebellum society and why, if he was indeed committed to nonviolence, he changed so completely by 1859. Again, his connection to Unitarianism will help to elucidate this point. According to James Duban, "Conscience and Consciousness: The Liberal Christian Context of Thoreauís Political Ethics," Thoreau seems to have accepted "a rather conservative notion ó but one nonetheless espoused by Unitarians . . . that the dictates of conscience correspond to universally prescribed standards of morality."(22) Nonviolent or active, even violent resistance measures are consistent with Unitarian ethics.

[21]        The following chapters generally follow the outline of my questions, which are in no way mutually exclusive inquiries.

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1.  Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau, ed. Joseph Wood Krutch (New York: Bantam Books, 1986) 342. (back)
2.  Arthur M. Schlesinger, The American as Reformer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1950) 33. (back)
3.  James Goodwin, "Thoreau and John Brown: Transcendental Politics," ESQ 25 (1979): 156. (back)
4.  Fritz Oehlschlaeger, "Another Look at the Text and Title of Thoreauís ĎCivil Disobedience,í" ESQ 36 (1990): 240. (back)
5.  Mohandas K. Gandhi, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 19 (New Delhi: New Delhi Publications, 1958) 466. (back)
6.  Gandhi 61: 401. (back)
7.  Henry David Thoreau, "A Plea for Captain John Brown," Reform Papers, ed. Wendell Glick (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973) 133. (back)
8.  Walter Harding and Michael Meyer, The New Thoreau Handbook (New York: New York University Press, 1980) 136. (back)
9.  Mohandas K. Gandhi, My Religion (Ahmedabad: Jivanji Dahyabhai Desai Navajivan Press, 1955) 62. (back)
10.  Vincent Buranelli, "The Case Against Thoreau," Ethics 67 (1957): 266. (back)
11.  Buranelli 262 & 264. (back)
12.  Myron Simon, "Thoreau and Anarchism," Michigan Quarterly Review 23 (1984): 368. (back)
13.  Simon 362. (back)
14.  Simon 369. (back)
15.  Mark Van Doren, Henry David Thoreau: A Critical Study (New York: Russel & Russel, 1961) 44. (back)
16.  Goodwin 164. (back)
17.  Wendell Glick, "Thoreau and Radical Abolitionism: A Study of the Native Background of Thoreauís Social Philosophy," diss. Northwestern U, 1950, 222. (back)
18.  Glick 215 & 188. (back)
19.  Harding and Meyer 121. (back)
20.  Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992) 64. (back)
21.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Thoreau," The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Four Volumes in One (New York: Tudor Publishing, 1941) 381. (back)
22.  James Duban, "Conscience and Consciousness: The Liberal Christian Context of Thoreauís Political Ethics," New England Quarterly 60 (1987): 211. (back)

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