Henry Thoreau As
a Mirror of Ourselves

By Alfred Tauber

From Bostonia, the alumni quarterly at Boston University, Winter 2001-2002

Thoreau Reader:  Home

A few years ago, while preparing a course on the philosophy of nature, I put Walden at the head of the reading list. After all, Henry David Thoreau is in many ways the spiritual forefather of modern-day environmentalism, and his aphorism "In wildness is the preservation of the world" has been used by the Sierra Club.

[2]    But Walden is about nature only in part. Building a cabin at Walden Pond constituted only one short chapter of Thoreau's life; observing nature, just one of his many pursuits. Rereading Thoreau in preparation for the class, I was reminded that I appreciated him neither as the poet laureate of nature writing nor as the prophet of our ecological conscience. His claim on my imagination originated elsewhere.

[3]    I had first encountered Thoreau during an earlier political era, reading Walden in the early sixties. As the political turmoil of the decade erupted, so did my adolescence. Thoreau's message of steadfast individuality appealed to my fourteen-year-old mind. When I read him again as a freshman in college, the sixties had provided a rich personal and cultural mulch. The Civil Rights movement had reached its zenith; feminism simmered; environmentalism renewed its call; Vietnam War protests surged. An array of personal emancipations (sex, drugs, rock and roll) and social demographics (baby boomers entering adolescence) combined to create a climate where his ideas could flourish. Civil disobedience was the most obvious Thoreauvian lesson, but more profound, his celebration of individuality inspired a generation of American students. Some took this credo as a license for their own hedonism; others understood individuality to entail moral responsibility for one's personal and political life.

[4]    But how was Thoreau holding up in the nineties? Had Walden retained its power to transfix and transform the young? And what about me? Did the elixirs that had intoxicated me as a teenager now taste of snake oil?

[5]    My students were intrigued by a personality so at odds with convention, a writer who could go from musings on a diving loon to the cost of building a house in a matter of sentences. An erudite laborer, a mystical pencil-maker, a poetic surveyor Thoreau both fascinated and baffled them. He described himself variously cultural historian, political commentator, Transcendentalist, teacher, nature writer but all subordinated to his self-image as prophet, awakening his fellow citizens from the slumber of complacency. To what end, though? By what means? And how did nature fit within this agenda?

[6]    Examining the entire corpus of Thoreau's writings shows that his study of nature was formed according to a template that he also applied to ethics, history, culture, politics, and psychology. He had essentially one concern: what was the character of his selfhood as a knower of the world, as a moral agent, as a spiritual being? Thoreau was a self-conscious observer of the world and himself in it. And this self-consciousness informed all of his pursuits, tying together the apparently broad scope of his writings and the mysteries of his personality.

[7]    As a philosopher and a historian of science, I am now struck by the way Thoreau set himself apart from the mainstream of scientific inquiry. The 1840s was a crucial transition period: all the natural sciences were being subjected to critical appraisals. By the Civil War, vigorous new standards of objectivity demanded a radical separation of the observer from the observed. This so-called positivism had an enormous impact on what was considered "scientific." As Thoreau was building his cabin at Walden Pond, the term scientist was supplanting the older designation natural philosopher, and the amateurs who had diligently reported their findings to Boston's Society of Natural History were increasingly being replaced by professional botanists and zoologists trained by two newly appointed Harvard professors, Asa Gray and Louis Agassiz. This era marked the birth of the professionalization of science and the establishment of a forum for its critics: the philosophy of science.

A Personal Vision of Nature

[8]    In this revolution of scientific methods and standards, Thoreau's style of natural history evolved into a literary genre. His nature observations were plainly out of step with the new science, but more crucial, they posed an undisguised challenge to this positivism. Thoreau dismissed the goal of an objective account of the world, holding that we must make choices and thereby assign particular importance to one kind of information over another. Facts were significant only in a personal context. Indeed, he used natural facts as a painter uses oils, to compose a vision of nature and his place in it. So facts revealed both the beauty of nature, and perhaps more profound, the moral lessons that might be gleaned from its study. As Thoreau wrote in his private journal,

Nature has looked uncommonly bare & dry to me for a day or two. With our senses applied to the surrounding world we are reading our own physical and corresponding moral revolutions. Nature was so shallow all at once I did not know what had attracted me all my life. I was therefore encouraged when going through a field this evening, I was unexpectedly struck with the beauty of an apple tree The perception of beauty is a moral test. (Journal 5, June 21, 1852)
[9]    In this context, moral does not mean good or evil, but more generally, valued, and the point Thoreau makes to himself is that to appreciate nature requires an effort, a deliberate search for beauty, from which significance and meaning follow. This was hardly the work of an ordinary scientist, or even of a natural philosopher. It was the expression of an artist working in a new medium.

[10]    Thoreau followed a two-step process. First, he gathered facts with meticulous attention dating the blossoming of flowers, sounding Walden Pond, marking the weather daily, observing animal habits. He would sit in a swamp for hours, recording what he saw in a small notebook, then transcribing his findings into the journal he carefully maintained throughout his life. But it was after he had scrupulously recorded nature that the real work began. He regarded himself foremost as a literary man, and that calling required him to define in his journal, in essays, and in books the aesthetic and even the spiritual import of his observations.

[11]    Thoreau's nature studies are artistic in the sense that they offer us a new way of seeing the world, just as the Flemish painters of the seventeenth century and the French Impressionists of the nineteenth gave us new visions of light and landscape. Thoreau composed nature, selecting what he required to build up a picture of the world and of himself in it. The individuality he espoused was the sine qua non of the entire project. In short, instead of objectivity's "view from nowhere," Thoreau announced the primacy of precisely his own vision.

A Natural Means to a Metaphysical End

[12]    As important as that project was for him and his environmentalist followers, it formed only a part of a larger enterprise. His nature studies became the means by which he dealt with a metaphysical crisis, one that was profoundly personal but reached well beyond his own circumscribed life. Thoreau lived through a dramatic social convulsion that was shortly to culminate in the Civil War. Jacksonian democracy, replacing the old social hierarchy, reflected the political realities of growing mercantilism and the influx of new immigrants. As industrialization ravished antebellum pastoralism, as mass commercialization and consumption altered the value of the individual, Thoreau struggled to keep his world his own.

[13]    His experiment in living at Walden Pond was part of an attempt to reject a dramatically changing culture. Following no particular religion or political program, Thoreau asserted himself on his own terms terms derived from romanticism. In this regard, romanticism implies an acute self-conciousness, where scrutiny of his every action was evaluated to preserve the sanctity of his personhood. So when he observed nature, it was to seek meaning, beauty, or moral significance; when he labored, his effort was designed to maximize its personal significance and minimize its service to empty goals; when he wrote social commentary, his argument always revolved about his own autonomy. In short, individualism was his credo. But individuality comes at a price, and now we come to the conundrum Thoreau poses.

[14]    When one peers at his life, as many literary critics, political theorists, historians, religious commentators, and psychologists have, his eccentricity to be polite stands out. He appears hopelessly narcissistic, even self-deceived. Holding odd jobs, forever dependent on family and friends, self-indulgent to the extreme, Thoreau has struck many as hypocritical with his calls for self-sufficiency. Biographers, fascinated by his lonely bachelorhood, his misanthropy and political anarchism, his mysticism, his rivalry with, and dependence upon, Ralph Waldo Emerson as well as by his inventiveness, his erudition, his artistry, and his genius search endlessly for some balance between his celebration of radical individuality and his dependence on family and friends. I believe they search in vain.

[15]    Thoreau had no philosophy of "the whole," nothing to account for the individual together with his interpersonal relations. Indeed, the strength of his message is also its abiding weakness. He cherished solitude. Acutely self-conscious of his social position and claims to professional recognition as a writer, of himself as an observer of nature, employing original and even idiosyncratic methods, and most important, of his spiritual relationship to the cosmos, which he at various times referred to as pantheistic, savage, and sublime - he made existential isolation a requirement for his pursuits. The group, in any form, was inherently dangerous. He would seek alone.

[16]    Thoreau's inability to define a moral philosophy of human relationship is his great failing. This alone may be enough to dismiss him, but putting to one side the question of an individual's responsibility to another person or to a community, the self, in all its guises, also remains a problem. For all of Thoreau's admonishments to follow one's own course, the direction of one's moral movement cannot be determined by external structures or dictates, rational or divine only by self-made structures. And what determines those? He never says, other than alluding to one's heart and dreams and mystical insights. This sufficed for him; it hardly serves as a moral philosophy for us.

[17]    Yet Thoreau fascinates even as he fails. Emerson was close to the mark in calling him a modern-day Pan: we readily see Thoreau's allure, and we may indeed admire him, but in the end he is not to be trusted. He enraptures by imploring us to follow our dreams, to proclaim the primacy of our own interests and pursuits. It's an enchanting message. However, his exploits may also be variously regarded as cavalier or winsome and hopelessly selfish. His example is even menacing to those concerned with building community-based values and commitments. Is there any meeting ground?

[18]    I suggest we regard Thoreau as a mirror of ourselves. By studying his life, we learn the limits of our own choices, to heed the moral imperative of establishing and then asserting our own values, and finally, to dream the dream of fulfilling them. Thoreau lived an American odyssey, not to the promise of the West, but rather to the frontier of self-knowledge and a life guided by moral concerns. A fecund lesson for our students to consider, and a nagging challenge for their teachers to ponder. Is Thoreau a man for our times or a relic of a discarded romanticism? A Johnny Appleseed sowing virtue or a Don Quixote flailing at windmills? He demands a judgment, for better or worse. In making it, I surmise we will more fully understand our own choices.

Thoreau Reader:  Home