Henry David Thoreau
Created | Updated Jan 28, 2002
To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.
- from Walden by Henry David Thoreau
The American writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau lived and wrote in the mid-19th Century and had connections with a group known as the Transcendentalists. These writers, poets and philosophers, placed an emphasis on individual self-reliance as both a natural-born right and a moral responsibility, and upon Nature as a guiding force in life rather than merely a resource to be exploited at will. Thoreau, however, was too much his own man to be confined to any particular movement. As well as anticipating, by more than a century, the Green movement of today, he was a campaigner for civil liberties and an avowed Democrat, with a healthy respect for the ability of each individual to decide for themselves how to live their life:
I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible, but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father's or his mother's or his neighbor's instead.
A Brief Life and Times
Thoreau was born in 1817 and lived for most of his life in the New England area around Concord, Massachusetts. He studied at Harvard but remained something of an outsider there, partly because of his reserved temperament and also partly because, as the son of a small-town tradesman, he had a relatively modest background. However, he was a learned man clearly far removed from the anti-rationalist primitivism often attributed to him. There was in Thoreau a rather odd blending of New England Puritanism and non-Western influences including Taoist philosophy and Hindu mysticism. His reading of the Bhagvad Ghita, for example, an ancient Hindu text, taught him that he should abstain from meat and alcohol, and live a simple life placing the needs of the intellect above material demands.
His Puritan background would have prepared him well enough for such austerity; however, he was often deeply at odds with his own culture. He was, first and foremost, very much a freethinker with his own views on how life should be lived. He was not a great believer in the 'work ethic', for example, reasoning that such an obsessive devotion to labour represented a kind of exploitation of oneself. While he often had occasion to put into practice the discipline of hard work, he never held a 'proper' profession or career, tending instead to move from one kind of work to another as circumstances dictated, as and when he needed the revenue. It seems that he preferred to spend his time philosophising and meditating.
A casual glance at Thoreau's life would seem to reveal him as a harmless eccentric who accomplished little. However, his reputation soon began to grow after his death in 1862. He was eulogised by many people, most notably his friend and fellow Transcendentalist writer the eminent Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said of his friend, No truer American existed than Thoreau'. Emerson gave Thoreau's funeral address, observing:
He declined to give up his large ambition of knowledge and action for any narrow craft or profession, aiming at a much more comprehensive calling, the art of living well... He was bred of no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the state; he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; and though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun.
There is in Thoreau both a reflection and a critique of the individualism at the heart of American culture and the nation's self-image. Thoreau himself, while fiercely independent-minded, would not countenance exploitation of others or the watering down of an individual's nature in the acquisition of material wealth or worldly 'success'. He was a vocal critic of the institution of slavery, during a period when it was still widespread in many parts of America. This went to the extent of a public identification with dissident anti-slavery figures such as John Brown, and a refusal to pay taxes to a government that supported slavery. Eventually, he was seized by local police and thrown into jail, an arrangement which all in all suited him well enough. As he later observed:
Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.
Much to his disgruntlement, a wealthy aunt paid Thoreau's taxes for him, enabling him to walk free after spending only one night in prison. This, perhaps, spoiled somewhat the effect of his impressive words. Then again, as they say, it's the thought that counts - and there's little doubt that Thoreau had every intention of sticking it out in jail.
It was Thoreau's experience of prison that prompted him to write his famous pamphlet On Civil Disobedience. In this, he developed his argument that the best government is that which governs least - or, ideally, not at all - and that one of the duties of a responsible citizen is to challenge government whenever it would seem to be overstepping its boundaries. In spite of all this, however, Thoreau's primary aim was less to change the world than to find an honest way of living in it. From a Thoreauvian viewpoint, the individual's first responsibility is to their own conscience and personal integrity - any political consequences that follow on from the personal example that they set, are of secondary rather than primary importance. Rather than trying to eradicate the wrongs of the world, then, a person should wash his hands of them by refusing to give them support.
Thoreau, throughout his life, often abandoned society for extended sojourns with nature, generally keeping a journal of his observations and writing it up later on for publication. The most famous of his works is Walden, an account of a two-year period Thoreau spent between 1845 - 47, while he was in his late 20s, living on the edge of Walden Pond near Concord, in a small house that he built with his own hands1. Walden can be understood as an attempt to wrest the principles of individualism and self-determination away from the reactionary forces of the marketplace. For example, Thoreau was critical of the property system, which from his point of view enslaved a person as much as homelessness. He once thought of buying a farm but decided against it, electing instead to build a house of his own for a fraction of the cost and live 'free and uncommitted' in it. Ultimately, he argued, 'it makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail'.
There is virtue in an uncomplicated life, just as there can be value in poverty if a person lives honestly and in harmony with the natural world around them. Indeed, as Thoreau argued, a life of what he called 'voluntary poverty' may even, in a sense, be necessary to those of a philosophical disposition. 'None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life' he argued, but from such a 'vantage ground' - we need this kind of distance from our fellow human beings, he seems to be arguing, if we are to achieve the detachment necessary for any kind of useful perspective on life and on the chaotic comings-and-goings, the miscellaneous distractions of 'civilisation'.
Thoreau also found that, while he had numerous visitors during his stay at Walden pond, nothing was ever stolen from him2, and he never experienced the need to lock or bolt his door. His way of living, he felt, eliminated the need for dishonesty, because he only ever used what he required, and gave back to the surrounding environment at least as much as he took from it. As he argued, theft is inevitably a feature of a society in which some have more than they need, and others have less than enough. One would not wish to make Thoreau sound like a communist, however. In fact, he had a rather paradoxical relationship with his fellow human beings, advocating democratic values while at the same time largely turning his back on the complexity of human affairs and community life, in favour of nature. Thoreau, always in need of space for reflection, valued solitude as highly as he did the company of other people. As he argued, 'society is commonly too cheap'. We spend so much time gossiping to and about others, to so little avail, that we risk losing our sense of who we really are, amid this mass of useless trivia.
Thoreau's influence has been wide-ranging. As argued above, he was a precursor of the contemporary ecological momement's idea that we should live in harmony with nature rather than trying to dominate it. Writers such as Tolstoy and Chekhov, and the Irish poet WB Yeats, are known to have read and admired Walden. More recently, evidence of his spirit can be found in the work of the 'Beat' writers of the late 1950s and 1960s. The Beats, while they have primarily been understood as an urban phenomenon, also often show a deep vein of nature-appreciation in their writing, much of which can be traced back to Thoreau. The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, for example, deals with the relationship between human beings and nature, and the desire to find some sense of lasting value in the non-human. Another example is Gary Snyder, one of the greatest American poets of the late 20th Century, who has carried the Thoreauvian nature vision through further than any other writer associated with the 'Beat' movement.
In politics, a number of prominent exponents of non-violent dissidence have been influenced by Thoreau. Gandhi, for example, was impressed by Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience, and also by Walden, and these were influences on the development of Gandhi's own particular brand of non-violent action. It is also said that the early British Labour movement, in the late 19th Century before it became part of the modern-day Labour Party, used Thoreauvian ideals in conjunction with those of fellow critics of industrialism such as William Morris and John Ruskin, as a foundation for the democratic socialism that underpinned their movement. It seems appropriate, then, that many of those who have been inspired by the man have themselves been rather unorthodox individuals. After all, as Thoreau himself once put it, rather than following others, each of us should instead try to find some way to 'invent and get a patent for himself'. A life such as Thoreau's may not appeal to everyone. Fair to say, though, that it was better than most.
- More biographical and general info on Thoreau can be found at the Henry D Thoreau Home Page. Also try the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on Thoreau.
Ralph Waldo Emerson Thoreau reprinted in the Everyman edition of Walden (1992, Everyman)
Lawrence Buell The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, nature writing and the formation of American culture (1995, Harvard University Press)
Rod Phillips Forest Beatniks' and 'Urban Thoreaus' : Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Lew Welch, and Michael McLure (2000, Peter Lang Publishing Inc)