Pantheist Prophet:
Henry David Thoreau

by Harold W. Wood, Jr. — editor of "Pantheist Vision"
and co-founder of the Universal Pantheist Society.

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By any objective standard of modern civilization, the life of Henry David Thoreau was a dismal failure.  But as a human being, he may have been one of the most successful men who ever lived.

[2]        Consider his accomplishments: he was someone who managed to organize his life so as to have virtually every afternoon free for a long ramble in the woods; he penetrated into the heart of Nature so deeply that there is not a naturalist today who has not turned to him for inspiration; his iconoclastic philosophy still goads us today.  He inspired so much in the way of civil rights, environmentalism, and rational religion, that he is now one whose uncharacteristic success cries out to us today for study and emulation.

[3]        As a man who "marched to the tune of a different drummer", his words still haunt us for their candor: "Most men live lives of quiet desperation". Thoreau pointed the way out of that desperation through his Pantheist lifestyle.

[4]        Born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 12, 1817, Thoreau spent his childhood tramping around in the woods, hunting, fishing, huckleberry picking, boating — and reading.  Attending Harvard College, he was not known for outstanding scholarship, although he was asked to give one of the commencement addresses when he graduated in 1837.  He startled his audience then by proclaiming, "This curious world which we inhabit is more wonderful than it is convenient, more beautiful than it is useful; it is more to be admired and enjoyed than used."   That same year, he began the labor of his life: his Journal, in which he recorded his observations of everything from the weather and descriptions of bird's nests, to his thoughts upon the meaning of life — personal and biological.

[5]        Thoreau oftentimes said he never traveled, except for being "well-traveled in Concord."  But he did make a number of boating and walking excursions — to Maine, Canada, Cape Cod, New Hampshire, and Minnesota.  His first book told of one of these adventures with his brother:  A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, although he spent as much time exploring the inner world as the outdoor one in the book.  But the book that has captured the imagination of us today was named for the place where he wrote  A Week, in a one-room cabin he built on the shore of Walden Pond in 1845.  The record of his experience at Walden resulted in his most famous book, Walden (1854), an American classic.

[6]        Thoreau described his sojourn to Walden as an attempt to "live deliberately", i.e. "to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life".  The fact that he was writing a book there seems prosaic in comparison with this grand objective, yet he clearly did focus on actually  living  and not merely  getting a living  while at Walden.  He had ample time for nature — exploring in the environs of Walden Pond and Walden Woods, as well as time for writing his thoughts and reading.  He wrote, "There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands.  Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumacs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiselessly through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.  I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been.  They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance."

[7]        After his Walden experience, Thoreau continued his life of  "plain living and high thinking" in Concord.  Supporting himself with odd jobs, surveying, teaching, helping his father as a pencil-maker, and delivering occasional lectures, his "real work" was learning the natural history of his native woods, fields and rivers; reading philosophy and the narratives of early explorers; thinking deeply; discoursing with Emerson and his Transcendentalist friends, writing tracts against slavery and inventing the "nature essay" — and using his Journal both to make experimental thoughts and writings, which might someday be turned into books and articles, and as a intensely personal and private record of his life.  The Journal recorded his observations of nature, but his goal was not a scientific one of enlargement of knowledge, but rather depth of personal awareness.  As English professor Scott Slovic notes, "The very act of keeping a journal also contributes to the writer's feeling of being alive."  For Thoreau, his writing certainly was an extension of his life, a life closely identified with Nature.  Thoreau wrote, "A writer, a man writing, is the scribe of all nature; he is the corn and the grass and the atmosphere writing."

[8]        At the same time, Thoreau felt strongly that it was impossible to write without having experienced anything worth writing about.  He wrote, "How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!  Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow ..."  Thoreau reported that even after his Walden sojourn, almost daily, regardless of the weather, he took a four-hour afternoon walk.  Sometimes he went rowing on one of the neighborhood rivers.  But these excursions were not those of mere idleness.  Thoreau stated in his Journal the purpose for his walks:  "I wanted to know my neighbors, if possible, — to get a little nearer to them. I soon found myself observing when plants first blossomed and leafed, and I followed it up early and late, far and near. I often visited a particular plant four or five miles distant, half a dozen times within a fortnight, that I might know exactly when it opened, beside attending to a great many others in different directions and some of the equally distant, at the same time.  At the same time I had an eye for birds and whatever else might offer."  As Scott Slovic recently noted, this passage, "not to mention the Journal's copious notations themselves — makes it plain that Thoreau was a model of industry, and yet his own industry was a sort that most of his human neighbors easily mistook for idleness."  Thoreau himself declared, "I am abroad viewing the works of Nature and not loafing."  All this led editor Tim Homan to conclude rightly that "the poet-naturalist Thoreau viewed nature as a continuing revelation of God. Thus his everyday walks in the Concord countryside were much more than mere naturalist ramblings: they were charged with the intense spirituality of religion."

[9]        One night he spent in jail, for failure to pay the Massachusetts poll tax, in order to protest the Mexican War, which he saw as being purely in the interests of the Southern slave-holders.  Out of that experience he wrote his famous essay, "Civil Disobedience", later the inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Thoreau expressed in this essay a fundamental principle of true citizenship: "Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it."   In an equally important essay, "Walking", Thoreau argued that "In Wildness is the preservation of the World", and he proposed the first idea of a nature preserve.

[10]        In his efforts at publication, he sometimes ran into disputes with publishers over their censoring and editing his articles without consulting him.  But some, like Emerson, saw his brilliance and tried to encourage publication of his writings.

[11]        When Horace Greeley, the New York publisher who was pushing Thoreau's work, learned of Thoreau's censorship problem with another journal,  Putnam's, he wrote an exasperated letter to Thoreau pointing out that if his articles were to be published anonymously, then "don't you see that the elimination of very flagrant heresies (like your defiant Pantheism) becomes a necessity?"  According to Thoreau biographer Robert Richardson, Jr., "the phrase struck home.  Thoreau began using the term  pantheism  with a show of injured defiance. He wrote Greeley, still grateful for his help, but adding petulantly that he didn't know how he could have avoided the problem 'since I was born to be a pantheist — if that be the name of me, and I do the deeds of one'."

[12]        But Pantheism was viewed almost exclusively negatively in Thoreau's day, except perhaps by Thoreau himself.  Even his admirers would use the term as a means to criticize:  When Horace Greeley reviewed Thoreau's first book, though he praised it as a "fresh, original thoughtful work", he added: "His philosophy, which is the Pantheistic egotism vaguely characterized as Transcendental, does not delight us."

[13]        By contrast, more modern literary critics have welcomed Thoreau's Pantheism.  Joseph Wood Krutch, himself a self-described pantheist, and one of the most discerning and articulate Thoreau critics of the twentieth century, spoke of Thoreau's "observation on the one hand, and a kind of pantheism much less humanistic than Emerson's on the other", which became "more and more important parts of his activity and of his thought."  Krutch explained, "He hardly realized how complicated an intellectual history lay behind the possibility of his feeling as he did, of how many revolutions in the realm of science, philosophy, and sensibility he was the heir.  He was achieving a new kind of pantheism, which took for granted both the deists' 'Great Chain of Being' and the scientists' respect for stubborn fact."

[14]        It must be acknowledged that modern interpreters differ on whether Thoreau fits the label "Pantheist". Inexplicably, an ordinarily able critic, Paul Elmer More said that the "deepest and most essential difference [between Thoreau and Shelley and Wordsworth] is the lack of pantheistic reverie in Thoreau."  This seems belied by the quotation above from Walden where Thoreau described himself "rapt in reverie", or by such passages as one in Thoreau's 1856 journal, where primitive, uncultivated land gave Thoreau a feeling he described as "something akin to reverence for it, can even worship it as terrene, titanic matter".  Thoreau wrote "I would fain improve every opportunity to wonder and worship as a sunflower welcomes the light. The more thrilling, wonderful, divine objects I behold in a day, the more expanded and immortal I become."  His identification with Nature seems complete enough to satisfy any monist: "This earth which is spread out like a map around me is but the lining of my inmost soul exposed."

[15]        Even in the face of such remarks, Episcopalian theologian William J. Wolf contends that Thoreau remained fundamentally a Christian.  To me, his comments appear merely an attempt to encourage traditional Christians to more readily accept Thoreau's profound thinking and feeling.  Wolf acknowledges that Thoreau's emphasis was upon "the immanence of God", and it was this tendency "that accounts largely for the verdict of many of his contemporaries and critics that he was a pantheist.  It is significant that he himself never initiated the word pantheism as a description of his position although he accepted it once in a very tentative fashion in a letter to Greeley. The truth of the matter is that Thoreau had no metaphysical interest in clarifying the type of theism or pantheism which he may have held." As he struggled with the written evidence, Wolf finally decided that Thoreau was a panentheist — i.e., one who accepts the transcendence of God as well as the immanence of God — rather than a strict Pantheist.

[16]        Literary and theological squabbles aside, Thoreau provides great inspiration for the pantheist persuasion.  If Thoreau never had a "metaphysical interest" in clarifying labels, understandable in a time when pantheism was an unequivocally derogatory epithet, Thoreau had a quite "tangible"  expression  of Pantheism in his life and philosophy.  An examination of this great naturalist-writer's actual life and writing demonstrates that for him Nature was the primarily reality, and therefore his primary spiritual focus.  In his writings, Thoreau sometimes seems pantheistic, sometimes merely panentheistic, and sometimes focuses more on Transcendental theism. But the heart of his message is the same as the Universal Pantheist Society's: a vision of Nature as the ultimate context for human existence."

[17]        In  Walden , Thoreau enunciated a fundamental tenet for a pantheist faith:  "Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads."  So, it is not surprising he found his spiritual wealth on Earth more than some abstruse spiritual dimension: "When my eye ranges over some thirty miles of this globe's surface — an eminence green and waving, with sky and mountains to bound it — I am richer than Croesus."  [Croesus (reigned 560-546 B.C.) was the last king of Lydia (Asia Minor), known for his proverbial wealth.]  And this wealth in nature's beauty invoked in Thoreau a sense of wonder rather rare in his age:  "Talk of mysteries!  Think of our life in nature — daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it - rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense!  Contact!  Contact!  Who are we?  Where are we?"

[18]        This contact was for Thoreau a primary, not a secondary value.  In Nature Thoreau sought to find his own personal answers.  He wrote in 1852, "All the phenomena of nature need to be seen from the point of view of wonder and awe."  Following his example, we may find our own answers there which may differ from his.  But we will do well to listen to Thoreau's inspired utterance in which he merged self, nature, and spiritual reality:

[19]        "If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success.  All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself.  The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated.  We easily come to doubt if they exist.  We soon forget them.  They are the highest reality.  Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man.  The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening.  It is a little stardust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched."

[20]        Thoreau's gospel was undeniably that of nature:  "Mornings [are] when men are new-born, men who have the seeds of life in them.  It should be part of my religion to [be] abroad then."  Accordingly, as Robert Richardson Jr. points out, "If a pantheist is one who worships nature, because nature is life, and life is all there is that matters, then Thoreau was a pantheist."

[21]        And as Joseph Wood Krutch has pointed out, this version of Pantheism leads to an important moral conclusion: "Men do not readily relinquish the assumption that the universe was made for them and that it can be explained only in terms of their needs.  Thoreau's attitude represents a sort of ultimate democracy which proclaims that all living things, not merely all men, are born with an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  This sense of identity, material as well as spiritual — implies a kind of pantheism in which the symbol of the unity of all living things is not an elusive spirit, but a definable material thing."

[22]        Thoreau expressed these sentiments with humor as well as poetry:  "A farmer once asked me what shrub oaks were made for, not knowing any use they served.  But I can tell him that they do me good. They are my parish ministers, regularly settled."

[23]        Too soon, Thoreau became ill with bronchitis, which turned into tuberculosis.  He died on the morning of May 6, 1867, at age forty-three.  But Thoreau and his writings will live forever as a true inspiration to Pantheists.


© Copyright 1993 Harold W. Wood, Jr.

Reprinted by permission from Pantheist Vision, Vol., 14, No. 2, May 1993.
Universal Pantheist Society, P.O. Box 3499, Visalia, CA 93278
ups@pantheist.net - www.pantheist.net



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