Victor Nuovo: Thoreau, a true American freethinker

Editor’s note: After a short pause, this series picks up today with the 26th essay.

Henry David Thoreau (1817–62) was a poet, a naturalist, and a philosopher endowed with an acute moral sensibility. He was familiar with the Socratic dictum, “The unexamined life is not worth living” and applied it to himself. His journal, consisting of 2 million words, is a searching record of his daily life; indeed, everything that he wrote is self-revealing. If you read his writings, you will not fail to meet the author.

The central theme of his writings is the conduct of life — how to live, which was commonly thought to be a private matter, one’s own business, which individuals decide each for themselves — and it followed, that anyone who ventured to direct others was considered to be impertinent. Thoreau chose to be impertinent; it was a deliberate choice.

His goal in life was to become morally perfect, and he desired this not only for himself, but for everyone, male and female throughout the world. He never relented in his pursuit of this goal. It was the reason why he became a writer, and it makes his writing worth reading.

In this respect, Thoreau may be compared to Socrates. Even better, he was America’s Socrates. The analogy is apt. Both took morality, the conduct of life, to be the chief business of humanity. But whereas Socrates turned his back on nature believing that the city was the proper place to enquire about a moral life and to fulfill its demands, Thoreau did the reverse, and rather than confront people in the public square, he confronted only himself in solitude, in wild nature.

This fundamental difference does not disqualify the analogy. Both were strong of body and mind, and by living exemplified new modes of thinking and being that continue to challenge us and make us uneasy in our settled complacencies. Both were dismissed by their contemporaries as busybodies and eccentrics, hence, impertinent. But these dismissals were disingenuous efforts to ignore the challenges with which Socrates and Thoreau confronted them, for they wreaked havoc upon the moral pieties of their communities, and disturbed the complacent self-satisfaction of the elite.

In his essay “Civil Disobedience” a.k.a. “Resistance to Civil Government,” Thoreau challenged the belief that the chief duty of citizens is to respect the institutions of government and to obey its laws. Contrary to this, he asserted the right of citizens to oppose their government and resist its authority when they judge its policies or practices to be unjust; in short: the right of civil disobedience. And it was evident to Thoreau this was the case in 1848. “When a sixth of the population of a nation, which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty, are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subject to military law, I think it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.” The institution of slavery and waging aggressive war against a neighboring nation (Mexico) were his evidence.

Thoreau was skeptical of the merits of the so-called American experiment. He concluded that the political economy of the indigenous peoples was more in harmony with nature than the political economy of the United States, and more just. This judgment was not idle but the result of a careful study of indigenous American cultures, for which he acquired the highest respect. And his judgment has proved true. The current environmental crisis is proof of it. American commerce and industry are the causes of it. Hence Thoreau turned his back on his nation and its traditions and sought sanctuary in Nature. He contended that conscience takes precedence over civil law, for it is informed by a higher principle of right or justice, which derives its authority from an even higher principle: Absolute Goodness.

Among the traditions of his nation that Thoreau turned away from was the Bible. The supreme principle of the moral universe he professed was not “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” but “the God of the philosophers,” one in particular, Plato’s God: Goodness itself. But notwithstanding his deep Classical learning, he supposed that his inspiration came not from any past tradition, but from an original encounter with Nature herself. Emerson opened the way. He urged that Transcendentalists turn their backs on the past and immerse themselves anew in nature.

“Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to Nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past. …The sun rises today also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men (and women), new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.”

The life and genius of Henry David Thoreau is explained by these lines; it was the rule of his life. And these lines from Emerson’s eulogy of him at his funeral express its outcome.

“He was bred to 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. He chose, wisely, no doubt, for himself, to be the bachelor of thought and Nature. He had no talent for wealth, and knew how to be poor without the least hint of squalor or inelegance.”

Postscript: Socrates wrote nothing, and but for Plato he would not be remembered. Henry David Thoreau wrote a great deal, and much of what he wrote has become American Scripture, most especially “Walden,” in which he tells of his encounter with Nature and his discovery of himself. Even so, America’s Socrates awaits his Plato. To be continued.

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