Transcendental Ethos

A Study of Thoreau’s Social Philosophy and
Its Consistency in Relation to Antebellum Reform

© Michael J. Frederick, 1998

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IV. Early Thoreauvian Themes
[1]        Wendell Glick writes of the consequence of Thoreau’s defense of Brown: "It meant that he was admitting that he had been wrong in his life-long estimate of both man and the sort of universe in which he lived, and that, in the final analysis ‘expedients,’ and not ‘principles,’ were the determining agents in the governance of human affairs."(93) Glick deduces his conclusion from the premise that Thoreau was content to allow "natural forces," which are inherently omnipotent, good, and universal, to decide the fate of slavery. Thoreau never recognized Brown’s raid as one of expediency but one of principle. He favored Brown’s "cause." Nor did he ever really advocate delay. As early as 1843, he wrote: "The true reformer does not want time, nor money, nor cooperation, nor advice. What is time but the stuff delay is made of?"(94) Thoreau immediately championed the historical, heroic, and natural import of the Harper’s Ferry raid as the embodiment of liberty and justice, a view that was eventually almost universally recognized among Transcendentalists and Abolitionists alike, including Garrison.

[2]        Thoreau did not remain aloof from the practical cares of society. For example, while at Harvard, he participated in the school’s oldest debating society, the Institute of 1770. He was elected a member, July 3, 1834, and participated in the debates over the next three years of his college career with a good attendance record.(95) His involvement with the Institute connected him with the majority of his classmates and illustrates his early commitment to debating contemporaneous issues.

[3]        He had a reputation among his fellow students as the man from Concord. In his "Class Book Autobiography," Thoreau wrote: "To whatever quarter of the world I may wander, I shall deem it my good fortune that I hail from Concord North Bridge."(96) He was proud of the involvement of his town in the War for Independence. Reportedly, Charles Theodore Russell once burst into Thoreau’s dorm to harass him and a newly arrived Concord freshman because of their town pride. The incident was all in good fun; Russell was closely acquainted with Thoreau. Both were interested in the revolutionary history of their towns and often debated the subject at the club.(97) North Bridge, as Emerson later wrote, and Thoreau quotes him in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, was the site of "the shot heard round the world." Thoreau recorded his feelings after passing beneath the bridge on his river journey.

Ah, ’t is in vain the peaceful din
That wakes the ignoble town,
Not thus did braver spirits win
A patriot’s renown.(98)
[4]        Thoreau’s patriotism, his "Concord pride," is often underestimated by those wishing to label him as a pacifist. His essay "Walking" praises westward expansion and American manifest destiny. He writes: "To Americans I hardly need to say, —

        "Westward the star of empire takes its way.’

As a true patriot, I should be ashamed to think that Adam in paradise was more favorably situated on the whole than the backwoodsman in this country."(99)

[5]        His role as a reformer is also sometimes underestimated. Shortly after graduation, Thoreau was elected five times to office in the Concord Lyceum and from 1838 to 1839 served as Lyceum Secretary.(100) He remained an active member of the lecture circuit for the next twenty-three years of his life, which proved to be the cynosure of his lifetime activity in all areas of reform. Like Emerson, Thoreau in his own right was a prodigious lecturer.

[6]        Glick suggests that as a young adult Thoreau would not have supported John Brown’s raid because, in 1840, he made "such assertions" with the "blandest confidence" as "‘the strongest is always the least violent.’"(101) Thoreau, no doubt, was essentially nonviolent. But he says the strongest is "least violent," not nonviolent. This is clear when we consider another quotation from his 1840 journal: "Let not ours be such nonresistance as the chaff that rides before the gale."(102) Moreover, most scholars recognize that he had an early fascination with war and soldiers rather than an aversion for them, and it was only later that he toned down his language or advocated passive resistance. Linck Johnson, in "Contexts of Bravery: Thoreau’s Revisions of ‘The Service’ for a Week," for example, remarks that "the idealized soldier of Thoreau’s youthful dreams of glory had thus been superseded by a grotesque, nightmarish figure conjured up by the injustices of the Mexican War."(103)

[7]        The Peace Convention initiatives that Garrison and Ballou spoke of were well known to Concordians. In 1841, the Concord Lyceum records show that non-resistance was a hot topic. On the 13th and 27th of January, the Lyceum held two successive debates on "Is It Ever Proper to Offer Forcible Resistance."(104) The 13th shows Frost and Hoar argued the affirmative and Alcott the negative. On the 27th, John and Henry Thoreau argued the affirmative and, again, Alcott the negative. Following the debates a month later, Adin Ballou lectured on "Non-Resistance."

[8]        Thoreau’s early writings show he did not reject violence out of principle. One of his earliest biographers, Frank Sanborn, who knew him personally, believed the "Service" was written, in part, as a response to the tactics of the peace movement. While scholars have sometimes questioned the accuracy of some of Sanborn’s claims, the evidence, here, supports the validity of his particular assertion. Thoreau concluded the essay: "Of such sort, then, be our crusade, which, while it inclines chiefly to the hearty good will and activity of war, rather than the insincerity and sloth of peace . . . earnestly applying ourselves to the campaign before us."(105) Again, in his 1840 journal, Thoreau wrote: "I have a deep sympathy with war, it so apes the gait and bearing of the soul."(106)

[9]        Thoreau’s epistemology differed from that of Garrison and Ballou. He believes religious certainty can be attained without a strict adherence to the Gospels. The Transcendentalists go to great pains to show that moral certainty is necessary because individuals have free will. The moral faculties are cultivated through self-reliance, self- education, and intuitive apprehensions of reality. Conscience is reliable. Individuals can increase the effectiveness of intuitionism by observing the correspondence between nature, society, and the past. These assumptions were based largely on Kantian Idealism and Coleridge’s distinction between the Reason and the Understanding. Thoreau believes through faith, conjecture, and empirical evidence that the idealism of Transcendentalism is not only representative of the ideal, the real world as he believes, but the apparent or actual world as well. His political essays are directed toward practical ends and are patterned on these same Transcendental ideals, which are consistent throughout his political essays.

[10]        In a college essay written in 1835 entitled "The Comparative Moral Policy of Severe and Mild Punishments," Thoreau writes: "The end of all punishment is the welfare of the state, — the good of community at large, — not the suffering of an individual." By taking the end of all punishment as his ideal, Thoreau wants to understand the means to realize the ideal. He reasons the good of the individual is the good of society. In actual practice, lawgivers often lose site of the ideal, considering what is merely expedient. "It matters not to the lawgiver what a man deserves. . . ." In principle, the means should be just. There is a "higher tribunal" than the civic judge.(107) He does not discount the possibility of there being "some advantage" to severe punishment, however. He writes: "It would seem then, that the welfare of society calls for a certain degree of severity; but this degree must bear some proportion to the offence. If this distinction be lost sight of punishment becomes unjust as well as useless — we are not to act upon the principle, that crime is to be prevented at any rate, cost what it may; this is obviously erroneous."(108) To Thoreau, accordingly, severe punishments do not always discourage crime and in their severity may be unjust. The end of all punishment, then, can never be attained through injustice.

[11]        Justice is best served through peaceful means as violence begets violence, and establishing the welfare of the individual or the state through its continuance is impossible. As long as injustice persists it must be resisted. In "Resistance to Civil Government," Thoreau writes of certain instances in which "an individual, must do justice, cost what it may." In college, he believed it was "erroneous" to assume that crime should be prevented "cost what it may" because in so doing an injustice may result. He is concerned with the preservation of justice above all in both cases, and elsewhere argues: "We do all stand in the front ranks of the battle every moment of our lives; where there is a brave man, there is the thickest of the fight, there the post of honor."(109) To do justice is to battle with injustice, armed or otherwise, and in either case the hero willingly submits to its cause.

[12]        By examining the past, Thoreau found examples of virtuous action. His 1843 essay on "Sir Walter Raleigh" can serve as an example. Thoreau writes of Raleigh: "He was a proper knight, a born cavalier, and in the intervals of war betook himself still to the most vigorous arts of peace, though as if diverted from his proper aim."(110) Knighthood is a recurring theme in Thoreau’s political essays, and still more, rather a peculiar theme for a supposed pacifist. Thoreau writes: "Men claim for the ideal an actual existence also — but do not often expand the actual to the ideal."(111) Instead, they follow what is expedient. The hero expands the actual to the ideal; he lives for its principle. Although the ideal may never materialize in actuality, society may never be free from all punishments; the hero nevertheless recognizes the reality and the inherent goodness of the ideal and strives toward its fulfilment through intermediate goals resisting injustice.

[13]        Nature and history illustrate the heroic principle. In an 1851 journal entry Thoreau writes:

The story of Romulus & Remus being suckled by a wolf is not a mere fable; the founders of every state which has risen to eminence have drawn their nourishment and vigor from a similar source. It is because the children of the empire were not suckled by wolves that they were conquered & displaced by the children of the northern forests who were.

        America is the she wolf today and the children of exhausted Europe exposed on her uninhabited & savage shores are the Romulus & Remus who having derived new life & vigor from her breast have founded a new Rome in the West.

        It is remarkable how few passages comparatively speaking there are in the best literature of the day which betray any intimacy with nature.(112)

Thoreau reworks the fable illustrating a spiritual truth. The hero above all must show courage. His vigor is derived from nature. Not that geography is a determinate factor in the growth and progress of a civilization, but individuals feasting at the wellspring of life, so to speak, derive sustenance for new life, a beginning. Movement and activity continually overturn static and sedentary habits. The primitive facilitates the lofty; the hero is their relationship. He writes: "Bravery and Cowardice are kindred correlatives with Knowledge and Ignorance Light and Darkness — Good and Evil."(113)

[14]        In Thoreau’s estimation, truth is absolute insofar as it derives its meaning from the principle of change. Truth for him is a verb and consists of relationships. As he wanted to find a balanced approach to severe and mild punishments, so also he wanted a balanced life overall. His diet was almost exclusively vegetarian, but he sometimes ate flesh. He almost never drank alcohol, tea, or coffee, but he had been known, on occasion, to have drunk fermented cider. He says he is "naturally no hermit, but might possibly sit out the sturdiest frequenter of the bar-room," if his business called him thither. As a naturalist he never shot his specimens, yet as a boy he owned a fowling piece and enjoyed sport, although he says if he were to live in the wilderness he "should again be tempted to become a fisher and hunter in earnest." He compares the individual in youth to a voracious caterpillar and in adulthood to the transformed butterfly, whose diet is significantly less ravenous. While his habits were chaste and temperate, he found in himself "an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one." And, he wrote: "I reverence them both."(114)

[15]        Thoreau’s habits are consistent with Western ascetic practice and the literature of the past. Socrates was temperate, yet, he too, reportedly, could "sit out" the sturdiest Athenian. Thoreau is not ascetically austere. He is sympathetic about human foibles and chooses for himself the path of moderation. Virtue must coexist and harmonize with and consist of the higher and lower laws of his nature. Equanimity cannot be sacrificed for one virtue over another without detriment to both. The savage quality that produced Sparta, Rome, and America was active and vigorous. As Plato’s Republic recommends gymnastics to cultivate vigor and music, the sensibilities, so too, Thoreau seeks to cultivate his lower and higher natures. He believes that "the brave warrior must have harmony if not melody at any sacrifice," and writes: "Ever since Jerico fell down before a blast of ram’s horns, the martial and musical have gone hand in hand. — If the soldier marches to the sack of a town he must be preceded by drum and trumpet, which shall identify his cause with the accordant universe."(115)

[16]        Reform movements were well established in America by 1837, the year Thoreau graduated from college. Garrison’s Abolition movement had gained national recognition along with Mann’s educational reforms and Beecher’s temperance movement. Robert Owen had founded New Harmony in Indiana in 1825 based on the socialistic teachings of Charles Fourier. The decade of the 1840's witnessed the growth of similar collective organizations. George Ripley organized his voluntary association, Brook Farm, in 1841 desiring an intellectual retreat that combined work and study; Adin Ballou organized his Hopedale community in 1842; while Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane moved their two families to Harvard, Massachusetts, in 1843 founding Fruitlands.

[17]        Thoreau began lecturing at the Concord Lyceum almost immediately. His essays soon appeared in periodicals and newspapers in Boston and New York. The earliest of his essays appeared more frequently in the Dial, a Transcendental periodical edited by Margaret Fuller, than any other. Fuller was, perhaps, the most prodigious intellect among the Transcendentalists. Her unmatched erudition of Goethe gained both the respect and admiration of Emerson and Thoreau. She and Thoreau had somewhat of a rocky relationship, however. Unabashed, she often criticized his work, especially his poetry, but never his literary merit. When reportedly asked if they were to be married, Thoreau replied: "No, in the first place Margaret Fuller is not fool enough to marry me; and second, I am not fool enough to marry her." Walter Harding who reports the rumored incident suggests that Emerson was "nearer the truth when he jokingly called Thoreau ‘Margaret’s enemy’ and tried to assure her that Thoreau’s ‘perennial threatening attitude’ was his ‘natural relation’ and not something he assumed in her presence alone."(116)

[18]        Emerson later wrote of Thoreau: "There was somewhat military in his nature not to be subdued, always manly and able, but rarely tender, as if he did not feel himself in except in opposition."(117) Such comments, while they do suggest an important side of Thoreau’s character, should not be taken too literally. As Harding suggests, Emerson played up to this side of Thoreau, often "jokingly." Upon Thoreau’s death, Emerson wrote: "The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost."(118) Thoreau’s friends remembered him fondly, believing his kind regard for his neighbors as well as for humanity superseded his brashness. Edward Waldo Emerson, son of Ralph Emerson, wrote:

I can remember Mr. Thoreau as early as I can remember anybody excepting my parents, my sisters, and my nurse. He had the run of our house, and on two occasions was man of the house during my father’s long absences. He was to us children the best kind of an older brother. He soon became the guide and companion of our early expeditions afield, and later, the advisor of our first camping trips. I watched with him one of the last days of his life, when I was about seventeen years old.
In writing his biography of Thoreau, Edward wished to show "that Thoreau, though brusque on occasions, was refined, courteous, kind and humane; that he had a religion and lived up to it."(119) He was responding to critics who had charged Thoreau with being a hermit, uninterested in society, a curmudgeon, or a fanatical crank. While sentimental, the work does offer a first-hand account of another side of Thoreau that deserves equal consideration.

[19]       In 1843, Thoreau published a review of J. A. Etzler’s book, The Paradise Within the Reach of All Men, Without Labour, by Powers of Nature and Machinery: An Address to All Intelligent Men. The piece appeared in the Democratic Review. Etzler wrote:

Fellow men! I promise to show the means of creating a paradise within ten years, where everything desirable for human life may be had by every man in superabundance, without labor, and without pay; where the whole face of nature shall be changed into the most beautiful forms, and man may live in the most magnificent palaces, in all imaginable refinements of luxury, and in the most delightful gardens. . . . Mankind may thus live in and enjoy a new world, far superior to the present, and raise themselves far higher in the scale of being.(120)
Etzler explained that humanity could achieve all this using natural resources. He wanted to revolutionize agriculture, harness the power of wind, falling water, tides, and waves. He believed solar energy could be harnessed to produce steam using mirrors. The architecture in the new society would consist of buildings 200 feet high, or twenty stories.

[20]        Thoreau deduces certain benefits inherent in Etzler’s plan. For example, the idea that mechanical systems could eliminate much of the need for animal power pleases him. He also accepts the notion of continued material progress and its inevitability. "Or, perchance, coming generations will not abide the dissolution of the globe, but, availing themselves of future inventions in aerial locomotion, and the navigation of space, the entire race may migrate from earth, to settle some vacant and more western planet. . . . Do we not see in the firmament the lights carried along the shore by night, as Columbus did? Let us not despair or mutiny."(121)

[21]        Thoreau did not fault Etzler’s book or its vision but that it aimed to "secure the greatest degree of gross comfort merely." He writes:

Love is the wind, the tide, the waves, the sunshine. Its power is incalculable; it is many horsepower. It never ceases, it never slacks; it can move the globe without a resting place; it can warm without fire; it can feed without meat; it can clothe without garments; it can shelter without roof; it can make a paradise within which will dispense with a paradise without. But though the wisest men in all ages have labored to publish this force, and every human heart is, sooner or later, more or less, made to feel it, yet how little is actually applied to social ends.(122)
Love was as important a principle for Thoreau as were justice and temperance. He did not disavow material progress, only so long as it did not conflict with virtue, or spiritual progress. These virtues are inherent to the individual and must, therefore, be cultivated individually. "Alas!" he says, "this is the crying sin of the age, this want of faith in the prevalence of a man. Nothing can be effected but by one man. He who wants help wants everything. True, this is the condition of our weakness, but it can never be the means of our recovery. We must first succeed alone, that we may enjoy our success together."(123)

[22]        Thoreau emphasizes the need for conscientious awareness to his audiences. He does not limit his praise of heroes to ages gone by but seeks out the virtuous in the present. Garrison believed it was necessary to organize to defeat slavery. Thoreau was not so sure. He believed the individual voice, one crying out alone in the wilderness, was enough to usher in a new age, the defeat of chattel slavery. Such a one as this caught his attention. Nathaniel P. Rogers distrusted urbanity, sophistication, politics, clergymen, and organization. He left a lucrative law practice for the cause of emancipation and became the editor of a New Hampshire weekly, Herald of Freedom. Within Garrison’s anti-slavery organization, he became the chief prophet of Come-Outerism, a movement that stressed the abandonment, or "coming out," of corrupt churches, an idea as old as the Reformation itself. Rogers detested the semantics of moral suasion: "Tell the truth. Let everybody tell it — & in their own way. And if they transcend propriety — tell them so & if they won’t conform, let them go unconformed. That’s my sort of moral suasion. Any thing short of it is war."(124)

[23]       In 1843 and 1844, Rogers was at odds with Garrison and came to favor disorganization. He had discovered defalcations within the treasuries and the budgets of the organization and suggested that anti-slavery lecturers should from then on support themselves as Buddhist mendicants with beggingbowls.(125) Thoreau defends Roger’s plea for disorganization against political expediency in an article published in the Dial in April of 1844. He calls Rogers "wide awake" and praises him for raising the anti-slavery "war-whoop" in New Hampshire. He writes: "We do not know of another notable and public instance of such pure, youthful, and hearty indignation at all wrong. The Church itself must love it, if it have any heart, though he is said to have dealt rudely with its sanctity." Also, Rogers occupies an "honorable and manly position. . ." and "unlike most reformers, his feet are still where they should be, on the turf . . . he looks out from a serener natural life into the turbid arena of politics."(126)

[24]        Shortly after defending Rogers against attacks from Garrison, Thoreau came to the aid of Emerson in a long running free-speech debate that had gripped the town of Concord. Emerson planned to deliver an anniversary address on "Emancipation in the British West Indies." The local clergy had refused to hold any meetings concerning slavery. Thoreau rang the courthouse bell to announce Emerson’s intentions to speak. Emerson told his townspeople: "I doubt not that sometimes, a despairing negro, when jumping over the ship’s sides to escape from the white devils who surrounded him, has believed there was no vindication of right; it is horrible to think of, but it seemed so."(127) Emerson used the occasion to argue that in America, too, the end of institutionalized slavery must come to pass. Its citizenry may have been indifferent to slavery, but "those moments are past." He feels America must follow Britain’s lead against slavery.

[25]        Because Thoreau was elected five times to the governing board of the Concord Lyceum, he was much involved with the question of free speech. When they invited Wendell Phillips to the Lyceum to address the audience in Concord, conservatives fought back. Thoreau defended his right to speak. In a letter to Garrison’s anti-slavery standard, the Liberator, Thoreau reported Phillips’ speech.

[26]        Glick, however, believes Thoreau’s championing of Phillips as well as Rogers is an indication of his further involvement with radical Abolitionism. It is true that by 1844-1845 Thoreau had become steadily involved with issues concerning emancipation. Since graduation, he had been weighing the arguments of the New England Non-resistance Society and those of Abolitionism in general. His immediate involvement with the Lyceum made this inevitable. Thoreau praised Rogers for his individualism, his bravery, and his conscientiousness, but not for his association with Abolitionism. In fact, it was Roger’s stance against organization that so moved him.

[27]        The same themes that characterize Thoreau’s earliest essays are extant in his 1845 report, "Wendell Phillips Before Concord Lyceum." Thoreau continually questioned the integrity of institutions, particularly the Church and State, and as the slavery controversy escalated and the threat of war with Mexico materialized into a fact, his denunciations of these outstripped his earlier complaisant temperament. He continually found himself moored at the murky shores of conflict as the tide of anti-slavery sentiment rose and the clouds of war grew ominous, his eyes ever intent on the beacon of light. He praises Phillips for his virtue: his consistency, frankness, conscientiousness, and "soldierlike steadiness," which give him "natural oratory" so that his "audience might detect a sort of moral principle and integrity. . . ." As virtue belongs to the individual, Thoreau reasons the precedency of the individual over the transitoriness of institutions. "It was the speaker’s aim to show what the State, and above all the church, had to do, and now, alas! Have done, with Texas and slavery, and how much, on the other hand, the individual should have to do with church and state."(128) Thoreau lauds Phillips’ plucky integrity and expresses his wish that Phillips should be heard against the backdrop of timorous public opinion, which "cannot drive him." Thoreau writes: "He stands so distinctly, so firmly, and so effectively alone, and one honest man is so much more than a host. . . ."(129)

[28]     As the slavery controversy escalated, Thoreau found examples of heroism in his own time, a heroism that he felt was essential to the soundness of human affairs. Thoreau praised Rogers, Emerson, and now Phillips for their individual bravery fronting adversity. Concluding his report to the Liberator, Thoreau wrote of Phillips:

If you know of any champion in the ranks of his opponents who has the valor and courtesy even of paynim chivalry, if not the Christian graces and refinement of this knight, you will do us a service by directing him to these fields forthwith, where the lists are now open, and he shall be hospitably entertained. For as yet the Red-cross knight has shown us only the gallant device upon his shield, and his admirable command of his steed, prancing and curvetting in the empty lists; but we wait to see who, in the actual breaking of lances, will come tumbling upon the plain.(130)
Metaphorical as this passage is, Thoreau praises Phillips for his "paynim" courage, his heathenism or what Emerson might call "unhandselled savage nature." By the "actual breaking of lances," Thoreau does not mean to suggest an advocation of passive resistance; no, this imagery is of medieval crusaders. It is also Homeric, somewhat suggestive of the Scamander Plain. Thoreau wrote in Walden: "No wonder that Alexander carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions in a precious casket."(131) While these passages may not be read as an outright sanction of violent resistance, Thoreau’s violent imagery is undeniable.

[29]        After his defense of Rogers, Thoreau made what has been deemed his retreat from society. Thoreau took up occupancy at Walden Pond during the presidency of Polk, July 4, 1845. He later admitted that "it is difficult to begin without borrowing."(132) As such, he had borrowed Alcott’s axe, Emerson’s wood lot, and the help of his neighbors for his house raising. Their assistance and their interest in his enterprise were essential. After the initial community involvement, Thoreau had to console himself with the bravery of minks and muskrats if his so-called community of one was to survive.

[30]        While at Walden, Thoreau lived a little more than a mile from his nearest neighbor. His retreat was not total nor entirely solitary. He still made frequent trips to town to visit friends and relatives, and much to the fancy of some critics, occasionally ate a cookie or two at his mother’s house. Walden served as his residency, a place of self-study, and above all as a writer’s retreat. He continued to publish essays and kept in touch with literary contacts such as Horace Greeley in New York. He also continued frequent excursions into the countryside and embarked on his first excursion to the Maine woods. Life at Walden was not without its incidences. Thoreau occasionally harbored fugitive slaves, and once held a meeting for the Concord Women’s Anti-slavery Society as he indirectly mentions in Walden having once housed twenty-five to thirty people under his roof. On going to the woods, he conceded that "we all belong to the community."(133) And yet, he would not have anyone adopt his "mode of living." Moreover, three significant things happened while Thoreau was at Walden Pond. He began work on A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; he wrote the preliminary passages of Walden; and he was arrested for non-payment of his poll tax and spent a night in the Concord jail.

[31]    A Week contains the rudiments of Thoreau’s social philosophy. It is a hard nut to crack; yet its tough outer flesh yields a rich transcendental inner core ripe with universal meaning. Link Johnson called it Thoreau’s "complex weave." As with Walden, its meaning flowers forth ever anew with increasing force on each successive reading. Thoreau makes clear at the outset of the description of his river journey that Concord is "a port of entry and departure for the bodies as well as the souls of men; one shore at least exempted from all duties but such as an honest man will gladly discharge."(134) He compares the Concord river to the Nile and Euphrates and remarks of their kindred age.

[32]        On one level, A Week is a memorial to Thoreau’s friendship with his brother John, who died of tuberculosis in 1842 shortly after the river journey. It is a story of life and death as well, or it is correlatively associated with the history of New England and the history of the world, its longings, musings, and remembrances. "The characteristics and pursuits of various ages and races of men are always existing in epitome in every neighborhood."(135) Digressions within the story are no longer seen as digressions when the reader willingly leaves the ebb and flow of the river journey, recognizing the ideal realm as well, for the stream of consciousness.

[33]    A Week aims at what is universal in history: language, myth, virtue, beauty, goodness, poetry, art, music, and the integrity of the individual. As a contribution to the reaction of Transcendentalism to Unitarianism and organized religion overall, Thoreau argues that, because these things are universal to the human soul, it is through the individual that they are to be expressed. "What was the excitement of the Delphic priests," he asks, "compared with the calm wisdom of Socrates?"(136)

[34]        In the Sunday chapter, Thoreau questions the integrity of the Church. He quotes various passages from the New Testament. "Seek first the kingdom of heaven." "Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth." "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven." "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" Or, "What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" He goes on to remonstrate:

Think of repeating these things to a New England audience! thirdly, fourthly, fifteenthly, till there are three barrels of sermons! Who, without cant, can read them aloud? Who, without cant, can hear them, and not go out of the meeting-house? They never were read, they never were heard. Let but one of these sentences be rightly read from any pulpit in the land, and there would not be left one stone of that meeting-house upon another.(137)
His pronounced criticism of hypocrisy was provocative. James Russell Lowell rebuked Thoreau in the Massachusetts Quarterly Review: "We were bid to a river-party, not to be preached at."(138)Yet unlike some of his contemporaries, Thoreau, while although believing in the moral regenerative powers of language, produced no systematic moral philosophy as did the Academic Orthodoxy.(139) Where Garrison and Ballou referred to the Golden Rule as their guiding light, Thoreau wrote: "An honest man would have but little occasion for it. It is golden not to have any rule at all in such a case."(140) His work does not digress into solipsism, however, nor is it overtly pantheistic. He looks rather for correspondences between what he finds in himself and what he observes in nature and tries to see if these do not somehow relate to what is universal in history as well as to the present condition of his society.

[35]        Virtue is not to be found in dead institutions of the past nor in the institutions of the present but, instead, within the individual. If institutions, only, and not individuals, represent virtue, then, as Thoreau believes, virtue is dead: "Even virtue is no longer virtue if it be stagnant. A man’s life should be constantly as fresh as this river. It should be the same channel, but new water every instant."(141)

[36]        In the Monday chapter, rather than advocating egotism, Thoreau says "humility is still a very human virtue." He then gives a succinct definition on the role of conscience in deciding moral questions:

I must conclude that Conscience, if that be the name of it, was not given us for no purpose, or for a hindrance. However flattering order and experience may look, it is but the repose of a lethargy, and we will choose rather to be awake, though it be stormy, and maintain ourselves on this earth and in this life, as we may, without signing our death-warrant. Let us see if we cannot stay here where He has put us, on his own conditions. Does not his law reach as far as his light? The expedients of nations clash with one another only the absolutely right is expedient for all.(142)
He elsewhere adds, rather abstractly: "The conscience really does not, and ought not to, monopolize the whole of our lives, any more than the heart or the head."(143) Again, Thoreau never resolves anything into a single principle. It is always his intention to look at relationships. He strives to balance competing principles, to harmonize them, and to have the ideal reflect the actual, looking for a more real, less artificial sense of reality.

[37]        He is a little less critical of Christianity in this chapter, comparing its advantages and disadvantages to those of Hinduism. Those who would like to label Thoreau as a radical will find some interesting views of his on what he himself labeled as conservative and liberal virtues. He calls Christ the "prince of Reformers and Radicals," and writes: "Christianity . . . is humane, practical, and, in a large sense, radical." He cherishes both the scriptures of Christianity and those of Hinduism. "The New Testament is remarkable for its pure morality; the best of the Hindoo Scripture, for its pure intellectuality." He praises Christianity for its practical teachings and its willingness to confront evil. In so doing, Thoreau then goes on clearly to illustrate, specifically, that in 1849 he did not reject the idea of forcible resistance. He writes of Hinduism:

It is not always sound sense in practice. The Brahman never proposes courageously to assault evil, but patiently to starve it out. His active faculties are paralyzed by the idea of caste, of impassable limits, of destiny, and the tyranny of time. Kreeshna’s argument, it must be allowed, is defective. No sufficient reason is given why Arjoon should fight. . . . The Brahman’s virtue consists not in doing right, but arbitrary things. . . . It is in fact a defense of the institution of caste. . . . (144)
While Thoreau’s lavish praise of the Bhagavad Gita is well known, clearly Krishna’s argument does not satisfy his understanding of the central necessity of fighting. "No sufficient reason is given why Arjoon should fight." Krishna’s argument is defective because assaulting evil is sometimes necessary, which the Brahman never proposes to do. Thoreau writes: "There is such a thing as caste, even in the West; but it is comparatively faint. It is conservatism here. It says forsake not your calling, outrage no institution, use no violence, rend no bonds. The State is thy parent. Its virtue or manhood is wholly filial." Nor does he accept the idea of passively waiting to "starve out" injustice and writes: "Thank God, no Hindoo tyranny prevailed at the framing of the world, but we are freemen of the universe, and not sentenced to any caste."(145)

[38]        Thoreau toned down his use of military metaphors in A Week as Linck Johnson explains in "Context of Bravery," but he did not dispense with military imagery altogether. He writes of a soldier without "casting any suspicion on his honor and real bravery in the field." He still admires paynim courage and heathenish integrity. "Inside the civilized man stands the savage still in the place of honor." And there are still references to battles: "Where a battle has been fought, you will find bones of men and beasts; where a battle is being fought, there are hearts beating." He looks for the hero in his midst with disappointment: "But generally speaking, the land is now, at any rate, very barren of men, and we doubt if there are as many hundreds as we read of. It may be that we stood too near."(146)

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Notes

93.  Glick 215. (back)
94.  Thoreau, "Paradise (to be) Regained," Reform Papers 41. (back)
95.  Kenneth Walter Cameron, Thoreau and His Harvard Classmates (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1965) 6, 107. (back)
96.  Thoreau, "Class Book Autobiography," Early Essays and Miscellanies 114. (back)
97.  Cameron, Thoreau and His Harvard Classmates 85. (back)
98.  Thoreau, A Week 14. (back)
99.  Thoreau, "Walking," The Natural History Essays, ed. Robert Sattelmeyer (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1980) 111. (back)
100.  Kenneth Walter Cameron, The Massachusetts Lyceum During the American Renaissance (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1969) 101-90. (back)
101.  Glick 164. (back)
102.  Thoreau, Journal (Broderick) 1: 163. (back)
103.  Linck C. Johnson, "Contexts of Bravery: Thoreau’s Revisions of ‘The Service’ for a Week," Studies in American Renaissance, ed. Joel Meyerson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983) 293. (back)
104.  Cameron, The Massachusetts Lyceum During the American Renaissance. (back)
105.  Thoreau, "The Service," Reform Papers 17. (back)
106.  Thoreau, Journal (Broderick) 1: 146. (back)
107.  Duban writes: "Thoreau suggests that his apparently radical outlook is actually consistent with long-established religious values; ‘absolute right’ he elsewhere mused, is ‘synonymous with the law of God.’" Duban 212. (back)
108.  Thoreau, "The Comparative Moral Policy of Severe and Mild Punishments," Early Essays and Miscellanies 21, 23. (back)
109.  Thoreau, Journal (Broderick) 1: 87. (back)
110.  Thoreau, "Sir Walter Raleigh," Early Essays and Miscellanies 181. (back)
111.  Thoreau, Journal (Broderick) 1: 23. (back)
112.  Thoreau, Journal (Broderick) 3: 185-186. (back)
113.  Thoreau, Journal (Broderick) 1: 93. (back)
114.  Thoreau, Walden, "Visitors" 208; "Higher Laws" 263, 260. (back)
115.  Thoreau, Journal (Broderick) 1: 95. (back)
116.  Harding, Days of Henry Thoreau 69. (back)
117.  Emerson, "Thoreau," Works 383. (back)
118.  Emerson "Thoreau," Works 403. (back)
119.  Edward Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau as Remembered by a Young Friend (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1917) v, viii. (back)
120.  Thoreau, "Paradise (to be) Regained," Reform Papers 19, 20. For additional background information on Thoreau’s political essays see Thoreau: People, Principles, and Politics, ed. Milton Meltzer (New York: Wang and Hill, 1974). (back)
121.  Thoreau, "Paradise (to be) Regained," Reform Papers 35. (back)
122.  Thoreau, "Paradise (to be) Regained," Reform Papers 47. (back)
123.  Thoreau, "Paradise (to be) Regained," Reform Papers 42. (back)
124.  Thomas 320. (back)
125.  Thomas 320. (back)
126.  Thoreau, "Herald of Freedom," Reform Papers 49-52. (back)
127.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Emancipation in the British West Indies," Miscellanies (Boston, 1885) 174-175. (back)
128.  Thoreau, "Wendell Phillips Before Concord Lyceum," Reform Papers 59. (back)
129.  Thoreau, "Wendell Phillips," Reform Papers 60. (back)
130.  Thoreau, "Wendell Phillips," Reform Papers 62. (back)
131.  Thoreau, Walden 181. (back)
132.  Thoreau, Walden 135. (back)
133.  Thoreau, Walden 139. (back)
134.  Thoreau, A Week 11. (back)
135.  Thoreau, A Week 21. (back)
136.  Thoreau, A Week 154. (back)
137.  Thoreau, A Week 85. (back)
138.  Thoreau, A Week ii. Introduction by Thomas Blanding. (back)
139.  I refer here to James H. Fairchild, Moral Science; Asa Mahan, Science of Moral Philosophy; and Francis Wayland, Elements of Moral Science. Madden discusses each of these works in relation to Transcendentalism. (back)
140.  Thoreau, A Week 85. (back)
141.  Thoreau, A Week 159. (back)
142.  Thoreau, A Week 161. (back)
143.  Thoreau, A Week 86. (back)
144.  Thoreau, A Week 170-171. (back)
145.  Thoreau, A Week 172, 181. (back)
146.  Thoreau, A Week 392, 432, 190, 319. (back)


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