Transcendental Ethos

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

© Michael J. Frederick, 1998

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VI. Conclusion
[1]        Wendell Glickís study on Henry David Thoreau, while an important contribution to Thoreau study in its day, needed to be reconsidered under the light of recent scholarship. Native influences, indeed, played an important role in the development of Thoreauís social philosophy. Unitarianism was particularly well suited for the new subjectivism that was received via Immanuel Kant and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. William Ellery Channingís illustration of the subjective faculty of the mind as "our own soul" anticipated the readiness with which New England Transcendentalism was to embrace Kantian idealism. New England Unitarianism was particulary well adapted for Kantís idealism, in that, Transcendentalism, which began as a reform movement within the church, was already struggling with subjective idealism.

[2]        French Eclecticism, too, was well adapted to Transcendentalism as it helped to justify the Transcendentalists sense and importance of history. Victor Cousinís belief that history follows a pattern according to four prehistoric archetypal ideas: sensationism, idealism, skepticism, and mysticism ran parallel to what the Transcendentalists wanted to accomplish, especially Brownson, Parker, Emerson, and Thoreau, who were attempting to give expression to the universality of art, philosophy, and literature. This is born out well in works of Emerson and Thoreau as they give metaphorical expression to universal forms in their writing.

[3]        Kantís subjective idealism and the importance of archetypes in Cousinís Eclecticism, both as modified aspects of Transcendentalism, are alone enough to distinguish the so-called twin movements of Transcendentalism and Garrisonís Abolitionism, which was dominated by Evangelical Protestantism and had its roots in Scottish Realism and Lockean sensualism.

[4]       Unitarianism and Transcendentalism are clearly distinct from Evangelism, tending to avoid a fundamentalist interpretation of scripture, revivalism, and Evangelical notions of perfectionism. Garrison, on the other hand, was drawn to them and asserted the value of such practices and notions. Where he rejected portions of scripture, Garrison interpreted the Moral Law according to the Gospels of Christ as the intended governing principle of his Abolitionist movement. His "Declaration of Sentiments" address along with his association with Adin Ballou distinguishes him as one devoted to pacifism. Garrisonís eventual support of Brownís raid marked a dramatic shift in his position.

[5]        Thoreau never joined either movement. As his writings indicate, he was never a pacifist. Rather, he in fact participated in a Lyceum debate whereby he championed the use of forceful resistance. His early essay the "Service" specifically favors "the hearty good will and activity of war" to the "the insincerity and sloth of peace ." At first sight, these themes seem to be naturally opposed to his desire for an "enlightened State." However, Thoreau recognized in himself a tendency toward a "higher" or "spiritual" existence and another towards a "lower" or "primitive" existence and he "reverenced them both." His "somewhat military" nature, as Emerson described it, gave expression to Thoreauís "heathenish integrity." In this, we recognize his heroic ideal of character, a reverence for individuals who are drawn to action and sacrifice out of principle in times of civility or in times of crisis. However, Thoreau never accepted unqualified force and distinguishes between civil and tyrannical governments as well as individual and mass resistance. His defenses of John Brown is carefully qualified as an act of justice. Brown essentially acted alone against a government driven to expedient tyranny, as Thoreau believed, and his raid was symbolic of an historical process that was at odds with the inconsistency of government sanctioned chattel slavery to the civilized ideals that America believed it embodied.

[6]        Thoreau understood the implications of the new subjectivism, the Transcendentalistís conscience theory, and acted from the base of Transcendental principles. In "Slavery in Massachusetts," Thoreau describes his opposition to the ominous Fugitive Slave Law referring to the tyranny of it, and not without an historical basis for his position. His allegorical comparison of slaves to processed meat, sausages, was an appeal to conscience and intended to enlighten his listeners to the grave injustices of slavery, an appeal to Reason, in practice, became an appeal to common sense. He did not, as Glick claims, sacrifice the "truths" of his "reason" in defending Brown. Thoreau believed an individual should do only what belongs to himself and to the hour. He never rejected the possible necessity of force. His discernment of Krishnaís "argument" in A Week, published the same year as "Resistance to Civil Government," illustrates well his acceptance of force. Because "No sufficient reason is given for why Arjoon should fight," Thoreau believes the argument is defective. Instead of encouraging Arjuna to fight the battle, or the Hindu to "courageously assault evil, "Thoreau believes Krishnaís argument encourages passivity.

[7]        In part, Kantian Idealism constitutes Transcendentalist principles. Kantís subjectivism explains the basis from which New England Transcendentalism arose as an individualistic and experiential philosophy. As Samuel Taylor Coleridgeís Aids to Reflection illustrates, transcendental idealism consists of both an intuitive and an intellective process. As an experiential philosophy, Transcendentalism sought to synthesize the formative processes that made experience meaningful, yet limited in terms of its subjective nature. Through the Reason, the Transcendentalists believed they could directly apprehend reality inits Platonic form. The Understanding, on the other hand, had to refer to the faculties of the senses and formed a ratiocinative and categorical process.

[8]        While Kantian idealism constitutes Transcendentalist principles, in part, the Transcendentalists themselves, not so much borrowed, but drew from varied cultures and sources to give expression to their own ideas. They did not seek to systematize philosophy into an eclectic system as Cousin did. Rather, French Eclecticism intrigued their own belief in the universality of archetypal ideas that are expressed symbolically in art, philosophy, and religion in all nations throughout time. Emersonís Nature and Thoreauís Walden give expression to their form without constituting an eclectic philosophy, for example. Ethically, the Transcendentalists accepted a Kantian Imperative that the individual should will only those principles that can be willed for all humanity. As Thoreau was desirous of being "a good neighbor," he limited his protest against the civil government to the non-payment of his poll tax. In the case of his defense of Brown, he asks his audience to sympathize with Brownís "cause," to see things from Brownís standpoint. Unitarianism, too, was in agreement with the Transcendentalist notion of consciousness and conscience as a means to perceive the higher law. Nature, as it gives expression to language and thought, together with the literature of the past gave utterance to the Transcendental ethos. As Transcendentalism was an experiential philosophy, the individual (obvious as this may be) constitutes Transcendentalist principles, hence the importance of self-culture.

[9]        Thoreauís social philosophy was indeed consistent. His lectures, essays, and books were always personal accounts of what he believed through practice. His college essays express themes that are carried through into adulthood. "Severe and Mild Punishments" contemplates the ideal State and his notion of justice. He follows similar logic in "Resistance to Civil Government." "The Commercial Spirit of Modern Times" emphasizes spiritual over utilitarian values and is anticipatory of his residency at Walden Pond.

[10]        Thoreau remained an active reformer throughout his life, believing in the precedency of the individual of the transitoriness of institutions and the importance of spiritual values over utilitarian ones. He did not advocate the overthrow of government but asked for "at once a better government." Slavery, however, was clearly one institution he would rather do without. As an active member of the Lyceum, Thoreau championed the freedom of speech and came to the aid of Rogers, Emerson, and Phillips. "Resistance to Civil Government" was his own conscientious expression of discontent with the institution of slavery. By the 1850's, the governmentís support of slavery and the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law convinced Thoreau of its tyranny. When Brown led his raid on Harperís Ferry, Thoreau championed the raid as "resistance to tyranny." While he was never quit comfortable with discussing forcible resistance, Thoreauís defense of Brown was not at odds with his Transcendentalist principles: his heroic ideal and his sense of active virtue. While Thoreau operated from the base of Transcendentalist principles, it is remarkable how consistent his essays are by design.


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