From: The Life of Henry David Thoreau (1890)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Richard Bentley & Son 1890 London


A DELIBERATE intent of advocating any particular class of doctrines is more than once disclaimed by Thoreau. He was an independent thinker, who put his theories into practice with unusual courage, and expressed himself in his books with unusual frankness,—but he had no preconceived designs on the opinions of his fellow-men; he lived his life and said his say, and if he sought to exercise any influence on others, it was by no direct persuasion of argument or proselytism, but indirectly by the example of his own personality. He once asked a friend, who had entered the church, whether he had ever yet in preaching been “so fortunate as to say anything.” On being answered in the affirmative, he remarked, “Then your preaching days are over. Can you bear to say it again?” By nature and temperament he was averse to any elaborate “system” of philosophy or ethics; he questioned everything, and would accept no philosophical formula for himself, nor offer any to his readers. “The wisest man,” he says, “preaches no doctrines; he has no scheme; he sees no rafter, not even a cobweb, against the heavens-it is clear sky.” This constitutional unwillingness to be trammelled by the acceptance of any intellectual tenet will be found to have left its mark very distinctly both on the substance and the form of Thoreau’s writings, and should be borne in mind when he is spoken of as the preacher of an ethical gospel; nevertheless, since he did in truth dwell with much insistence on certain important truths, intellectual and moral, which are too generally overlooked, we are justified, with this reservation, in formulating as “ doctrines “ the views which he most frequently expressed.

  We have already seen that he was before everything an idealist-his transcendentalism was not an adopted creed, but an innate habit of mind from which he never swerved, and which dominated all his philosophy. “As it respects these things,” he says in his Letters, “I have not changed an opinion one iota from the first. Above a certain height there is no change. I am a Switzer on the edge of the glacier, with his advantages and disadvantages—goitre, or what not (you may suspect it to be some kind of swelling, at any rate). I have had but one spiritual birth, and now, whether it rains or snows, whether I laugh or cry, fall farther below or approach nearer to my standard—not a new scintillation of light flashes on me, but ever and anon, though with longer intervals, the same surprising and everlastingly new light dawns to me.” So far, it may be said, he did not differ to any remarkable degree from other idealists, who have all more or less recognised and followed this guiding light of the inner consciousness. But here we come to that distinctive quality which sets Thoreau on a separate footing from Emerson and other transcendentalist writers the resolute practicalness which shows itself as clearly in his doctrines as in his actions. Though the ideal was always before him, he had no taste for the subtleties of mere metaphysical abstractions, but made a strong actuality the basis of his reasoning: there were thus two sides to his character and philosophy, the one the mystical and transcendental, which faced the boundless possibilities of the future, the other the practical and terrestrial, which was concerned with the realities of the present and the past. “In view of the future or possible,” he wrote in Walden, “we should live quite laxly and undefined in front, our outlines dim and misty on that side”; and again, in the journal, “We believe that the possibility of the future far exceeds the accomplishments of the past; we review the past with common sense, but we anticipate the future with transcendental senses.”

  It is true that, these two qualities did not always work quite harmoniously together; for Thoreau was not careful to be systematic and verbally consistent; as he himself says, “How can I communicate with the gods, who am a pencil-maker on earth, and not be insane?” But, as a rule, the successful combination of common sense with transcendental sense is the characteristic feature of his doctrines; and this very dreamer and mystic who boasted that he built his castles in the air and then put the foundations under them, could also assert with equal truth, in another connection, that “it afforded him no satisfaction to commence to spring an arch before he had got a solid foundation.” His philosophy of life is eminently keen-sighted, sound, and practical. “I love,” he says, “to weigh, to settle, to gravitate toward that which most strongly and rightfully attracts me; not hang by the beam of the scale and try to weigh less; not suppose a case, but take the case that is; to travel the only path I can, and that on which no power can resist me. . . . I would not be one of those who ‘will foolishly drive a nail into mere lath and plastering. Give me a hammer, and let me feel for the furrowing. Every nail driven should be as another rivet in the machine of the universe, you carrying oh the work.”

  It is this more patient and practical hold on the common everyday realities of life, this firm concentration on certain solid facts, to the detriment it may be of a wide philosophical range of thought, that differentiates Thoreau from Emerson and other thinkers of the Emersonian school. It has been asserted that Thoreau” is Emerson without domestic ties, or wish for them; save for a streak of benevolence, without those of humanity.”1 But this subordination of Thoreau as a mere pupil and follower of Emerson is not warranted by the facts of their relationship. It is true that Emerson himself expressed the opinion that Thoreau had not, in the strict sense, put any “new ideas” into circulation—“I am familiar with all his thoughts,” he said; “they are mine, quite originally dressed.” But, even if we waive the question whether Emerson had really gauged Thoreau’s mind as fully as he imagined (and here what Hawthorne said of Emerson might be appropriately cited, that “the heart of many an ordinary man had perchance inscriptions which he could not read”), it is evident that a pupil who dresses a master’s thoughts originally is a master himself, since originality in supplying methods is scarcely less remarkable than in supplying impulses. This originality of Thoreau is frankly recognised by Emerson in a recently published passage of his diary.2 “In reading Henry Thoreau’s journal,” he wrote, a year after his friend’s death, “I am very sensible of the vigor of his constitution. That oaken strength which I noted whenever he walked or worked or surveyed wood-lots, the same unhesitating hand with which a field-laborer accosts a piece of work which I should shun as a waste of strength, he shows in his literary task. He has muscle, and ventures on and performs feats which I am forced to decline. In reading him I find the same thoughts, the same spirit that is in me, but he takes a step beyond and illustrates by excellent images that which I should have conveyed in a sleepy generalisation. ‘Tis as if I went into a gymnasium, and saw youths leap and climb and swing with a force unapproachable, though their feats are only a continuation of my initial grapplings and jumps.” If, therefore, we accept the compendious statement made by one of Hawthorne’s biographers,3 that Thoreau was “Emerson’s independent moral man made flesh,” we must remember that this fact may be quite compatible with Thoreau’s possession of original genius.

  This practical tendency in Thoreau’s genius was fostered and strengthened by his firm belief in the freedom of the human will. “I know of no more encouraging fact,” he says, “than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.” His religious and moral creed was founded on a fixed optimistic conviction that nature is working to some wise and benevolent end; joy was for him “the condition of life,” and despondency nothing more than a senseless and idle aberration. “There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of nature and has his senses still. Nothing can rightly compel a simple and brave man to a vulgar sadness. While I enjoy the friendship of the seasons, I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me.” (So deep-rooted and determined was this optimism that existence itself, with all the facts of existence, was welcomed and venerated as an undeniable blessing; “ If I could,” he said, in one of his accustomed paradoxes, “I would worship the parings of my nails.” He was intent on seeing harmony in nature, even where appearances were against it; as when he declares that the voice of the cat-owl, by which he was serenaded in Walden woods, was one of the most thrilling discords, “and yet,” he adds, “if you had a discriminating ear, there were in it the elements of a concord such as these plains never saw nor heard.”

  Inspired by this optimistic faith, Thoreau inculcates, more strongly perhaps than any other writer, a sense of content in one’s own personality—“a living dog is better,” so he tells us, “than a dead lion.” He would have each individual develop quietly according to his own capacity and conditions. “I think nothing is to be hoped from you,” he says, “if this bit of mould under your feet is not sweeter to you than any other in this world or in any world.” To waste no time in brooding over the past, but to live in the present, and nourish unbounded confidence in the future—this was the essence of his practical philosophy; and for support in this creed, and refreshment in the weaker moments of life, he looked to the unfailing health and beneficence, as he considered it, of wild nature. “In society you will not find health, but in nature. Unless our feet at least stood in the midst of nature, all our faces would be pale and livid. Society is always diseased, and the best is the most so. There is no scent in it so wholesome as that of the pines, nor any fragrance so penetrating and restorative as the life-everlasting on high pastures. To him who contemplates a trait of natural beauty no harm nor disappointment can come. The doctrines of despair, of spiritual or political tyranny or servitude, were never taught by such as shared the serenity of nature.” He was of opinion that man is “altogether too much insisted on in our views of the universe,” and he dissents from the poet’s maxim that “the proper study of mankind is man.” “I say, study to forget all that; take wider views of the universe. That is the egotism of the race.”

  This calm, optimistic nature-worship mainly determined Thoreau’s attitude towards the religious sects, whose “snappish tenacity” and faint-hearted craving for external comfort and grace were in direct contrast to his own absolute self-possession. “Who are the religious?” he says. “They who do not differ much from mankind generally, except that they are more conservative and timid and useless, but who in their conversation and correspondence talk about kindness and Heavenly Father, instead of going bravely about their business, trusting ‘God even.” “Really there is no infidelity nowadays,” he wrote in the Week, “so great as that which prays, and keeps the Sabbath, and rebuilds the churches. The church is a sort of hospital for men’s souls, and as full of quackery as the hospital for their bodies. Those who are taken into it live like pensioners in their Retreat or Sailors’ Snug Harbor, where you may see a row of religious cripples sitting outside in sunny weather. Let not the apprehension that he may one day have to occupy a ward therein discourage the cheerful labors of the able-souled man.” He confidently expressed his opinion that “the practical faith of all men belies the preacher’s consolation”; and that “nothing is so much to be feared as fear-atheism may, comparatively, be popular with God.” In religion, as in philosophy, nature was the solid groundwork of his faith, and out-of-doors was his ritual. We are told by Mr. Sanborn that Thoreau’s church of the “Sunday Walkers,” or “Walden Pond Association,” as it was jocosely called, came to be recognised by the village gossips as one of the religious institutions of Concord; and Thoreau has himself recorded how he was once reproved for ascending a mountain on a Sunday by a minister “who was driving a poor beast to a meeting-house,” though, as he says, he would have gone farther than his monitor “ to hear a true word spoken on that or any day.” I am convinced,” he writes in his journal, “that there is no very important difference between a New Englander’s religion and a Roman’s. We both worship in the shadow of our sins. Superstition has always reigned. It is absurd to think that these farmers, dressed in their Sunday clothes, proceeding to church, differ essentially in this respect from the Roman peasantry. They have merely changed the name and the number of their gods.”

  It may be imagined that the spirit of “defiant pantheism,” as Horace Greeley called it, which breathes through all Thoreau’s utterances on the subject of religion, and especially through the magnificent passage in the chapter on “Sunday” in the Week, must have caused him, and still causes him, to be mistrusted and misunderstood in so-called religious circles. It has been truly remarked of him that “he creates as much consternation among the saints as the sinners.” Yet his unsparing candour and epigrammatic incisiveness of speech ought not to blind his readers to the fact that it was the very depth and sincerity of his religious sentiment that caused him to set all forms and dogmas at defiance. “While he used in his writings,” says Emerson, “a certain petulance of remark in reference to churches or churchmen, he was a person of a rare, tender, and absolute religion, a person incapable of any profanation, by act or by thought. Of course the same isolation which belonged to his original thinking and living detached him from the social religious forms. This is neither to be censured nor regretted.” It sometimes chanced that one of Thoreau’s more orthodox fellow-citizens would attempt to entrap him in a conversation on religious topics, and on one of these occasions, when he was asked to state his opinion on the immortality of the soul and the conditions of a future world, he is said to have replied, “Those were voluntaries I did not take.” He would not allow his attention to be diverted from the paramount importance of this present life. Yet his belief in immortality is stated by his friends to have been firm and constant; and that he recognised the guidance of some overruling intelligence may be inferred from the following passage of Walden:

  “As I stand over the insect crawling amid the pine needles on the forest floor, and endeavouring to conceal itself from my sight, and ask myself why it will cherish those humble thoughts, and hide its head from me who might, perhaps, be its benefactor, and impart to its race some cheering information, I am reminded of the greater Benefactor and Intelligence that stands over me, the human insect.”

  To follow the leading of the ideal was Thoreau’s religion; and sin, whatever it might mean for other people, was to him simply the failure in this course. “Sin, I am sure, is not in overt act, or indeed in acts of any kind, but is in proportion to the time which has come behind us and displaced eternity, to the degree in which our elements are mixed with the elements of the world. The whole duty of life is implied in the question, how to respire and aspire both at once.” So he wrote in his journal when he was a young man of twenty-four, and the remainder of his life and the manner of his death alike bear witness to the absolute-sincerity of his convictions.

  What, then, was the practical effect of these idealistic aspirations on Thoreau’s ethical teaching? In the first place, he is an earnest and unwearied advocate of self-culture and self-respect, and insists again and again on the need of preserving our higher and nobler instincts from the contamination of what is base, trivial, and worldly; body and mind must both be exercised into purity and vigour, and carefully safeguarded against sloth, vice, and disease. “How watchful we must be to keep the crystal well clear, that it be not made turbid by our contact with the world, so that it will not reflect objects. If I would preserve my relation to nature, I must make my life more moral, more pure and innocent. The problem is as precise and simple as a mathematical one. I must not live loosely, but more and more continently. How can we expect a harvest of thought who have not had a seed-time of character?” The extreme delicacy of Thoreau’s nature—a delicacy which was sensitive almost to fastidiousness—may be seen in the sharp and perhaps too arbitrary contrast which he sometimes draws between the spiritual and the animal instincts, and especially in the tone of his remarks on the subject of love. “The intercourse of the sexes,” he says, “I have dreamed is incredibly beautiful, too fair to be remembered. I have had thoughts about it, but they are among the most fleeting and irrecoverable in my experience. It is strange that men will talk of miracles, revelation, inspiration, and the like as things past while love remains. Some have asked if the stock of men could not be improved if they could not be bred as cattle. Let love be purified, and all the rest will follow. A pure love is thus indeed the panacea for all the ills of the world.”

  In like manner, from an intellectual point of view, the mind must be kept secure from the debilitating and distracting influences of conventionality and gossip. This point is emphasised in the remarkable essay on Life without Principle, which expresses a good many of Thoreau’s most cherished convictions:

  “Not without a slight shudder at the danger, I often perceive . how near I had come to admitting into my mind the details of some trivial affair-the news of the street; and I am astonished to observe how willing men are to lumber their minds with such rubbish-to permit idle rumours anq incidents of the most insignificant kind to intrude on ground which should be sacred to thought. Shall the mind be a public arena, where the affairs of the street and the gossip of the tea-table chiefly are discussed? Or shall it be a quarter of heaven itself—an hyprethral temple, consecrated to the service of the gods? I find it so difficult to dispose of the few facts which to me are significant, that I hesitate to burden my mind with those which are insignificant. Such is, for the most part, the news in newspapers and conversation. It is important to preserve the mind’s chastity in this respect.

  “I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality. Our very intellect shall be macadamised, as it were, its foundation broken into fragments for the wheels of travel to roll over; and if you would know what will make the most durable pavement, surpassing rolled stones, spruce blocks, and asphaltum, you have only to look into some of our minds which have been subjected to this treatment so long. If we have thus desecrated ourselves—as who has not?—the remedy will be by wariness and devotion to reconsecrate ourselves, and make once more a fane of the mind. We should treat our minds, that is ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention. Read not the Times. Read the Eternities. Conventionalities are at length as bad as impurities. Even the facts of science may dust the mind by their dryness, unless they are in a sense effaced each morning, or rather rendered fertile by the dews of fresh and living truth.”

  The eager self-seeking restlessness of modern society, with its ignorance or disregard of the claims of thoughtful repose, was summed up for Thoreau in the word “business.” Nothing, in his opinion, not even crime, is so much opposed to the poetry of life as business,—it is “a negation “of life itself. Yet, as has already been said, the leisure which he advocated as essential to the well-being of every man was very different from idleness; indeed th6re have been few writers who, both in word and deed, have exhibited the value of time more powerfully than Thoreau. “Nothing must be postponed,” he says; “take time by the forelock, now or never. YOU must live in the present, launch yourself on any wave; find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities, and look toward another land. There is no other land, there is no life but this or the like of this. Where the good husbandman is, there is the good soil. Take any other course, and life will be a succession of regrets.”

  If he rejected business in its commercial and money-making aspect, he none the less recognized that hard work is as important a discipline for the mind and morals as exercise is for the body, and that those who fail to support themselves by their own labour are doing a wrong both to themselves and others. “Merely to come into the world the heir of a fortune is not to be born, but to be stillborn, rather. To be supported by the charity of friends, or a Government pension, by whatever fine synonyms you described these relations, is to go into the almshouse.” For the same reason he urges on students and men of sedentary habits the advisability of taking a share in the simple common labours of everyday life, asserting that “the student who secures his coveted leisure and retirement by systematically shirking any labor necessary to man obtains but an ignoble and unprofitable leisure, defrauding himself of the experience which alone can make leisure fruitful.” “If I devote myself,” he says, “to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first-that he may pursue his contemplations too.”

  We see, then, that Thoreau’s first demand is for leisure and elbow-room, that each individual mind, instead of being crushed and warped in the struggle of life, may have space to develop its own distinctive qualities and follow the bent of its own natural temperament. (Never has there lived a more 1 determined and unalterable individualist. Everything, according to his maxims, must be examined; nothing must be taken on trust; he was, as Emerson calls him, “a protestant à l’ outrance,” and unhesitatingly rejected many customs which are supposed to have the sanction of experience and tradition. He declared that after living some thirty years on this planet he had yet to hear a word of valuable advice from his elders. When a young man of his acquaintance professed a desire to adopt his mode of life, his answer was that he would have each one find out and pursue his own way, and not that of his father or his neighbour. “Why should we ever go abroad,” he writes in his letters, “even across the way, to ask our neighbor’s advice? There is a nearer neighbor within us incessantly telling us how we should behave.”

  This stubbornly individualistic and independent cast of mind, which so largely determined the course of his life, has left its trace on every page of his writings. To sit on a pumpkin and have it all to oneself is better, he tells us, than to be crowded on a velvet cushion; the gregariousness of men is “their most contemptible and discouraging aspect.” He expresses little faith in the advantages to be derived (at any rate, in the New England of that time) from co-operation, holding that “the only co-operation which is commonly possible is exceedingly partial and superficial,” while, on the other hand, “the man who goes alone can start to-day”—the individual not being dependent on the whims and prejudices of his neighbour. It must not be supposed, however, that he wholly ignored the possibility of wise co-operation-on the contrary, he expressly states in Walden, when advocating the adoption of a better system of village education, that “to act collectively is according to the spirit of our institutions”; and in the account of his Canadian tour, when he describes the machine-like regularity with which the troops at Montreal went through their drill in the Champ de Mars, he exclaims that a true co-operation and harmony might be possible, “if men could combine thus earnestly and patiently and harmoniously to some really worthy end.” But this seems to have been nothing more than a distant anticipation; under present conditions he considered that the best hope of society lay in the progress and gradual perfecting of the individual man by his own internal effort. At a time when Fourier’s doctrines had obtained great hold in New England, and when various schemes of co-operative associations, by which society was to be entirely reorganised and regenerated, were being eagerly discussed, it was inevitable that so shrewd and practical a thinker as Thoreau should-in spite of his idealism-fall back more and more on what he considered the solid basis of individual independence. This view is stated very clearly in his criticism of a volume entitled Paradise within the Reach of all Men, in which the magical results of co-operation had been depicted in glowing colours:

  “Alas! this is the crying sin of the age, this want of faith in the prevalence of a man. Nothing can be effected but by one man. He who wants help wants everything. True, this is the condition of our weakness, but it can never be the means of our recovery. We must first succeed alone, that we may enjoy our success together. We trust that the social movements which we witness indicate an aspiration not to be thus cheaply satisfied. In this matter of reforming the world we have little faith in corporations; not thus was it first formed.”

  Closely connected with this uncompromising individualism are Thoreau’s anarchist doctrines. He regards all established government as, at best, a necessary evil, which we must tolerate as we can during the present transitional phase of human society, knowing well that the ultimate condition of mankind will be, like the primitive, one of individual liberty. Politics he set aside as “unreal, incredible, and insignificant”; “blessed are the young,” was his new version of the Beatitudes; “for they do not read the President’s Message.” “What is wanted,” he declared, “is men, not of policy, but of probity,—who recognise a higher law than the Constitution or the decision of the majority. The fate of the country does not depend on how you vote at the polls-the worst man is as strong as the best at that game; it does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot-box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning. . . .” For the same reasons he expressed a strong dislike of the general tone of the American press, which he considered, with a few exceptions, to be venal and time-serving. In at least two of his essays, the Plea for Captain John Brown and Slavery in Massachusetts, this feeling finds an outlet in a fierce philippic against the hireling journals which did not scruple to use their utmost influence in the service of the slave-holding party.

  Yet here too, as elsewhere, there is a. danger of exaggerating the extent of Thoreau’s lack of sympathy with contemporary modes of thought. It is true he preaches anarchism and civil disobedience; yet, under a rough exterior, he loved his country well, and in his peculiar way was—perhaps as patriotic—a citizen as any to be found in Massachusetts. He admits that the American Government, though not an ideal one, is good enough when viewed from a lower than the ideal standpoint, and more than once expresses his own desire to be a peaceable and law-abiding citizen. Moreover, in spite of his contempt for politics and politicians, he does not deny that “countless reforms are called for,” and shows that he is aware that the condition of the working classes is destined to be the paramount question of the age. But all his social doctrines point finally to this end—that the path must be left clear for the free development of individual character. “There will never be a really free and enlightened State,” he says, “until the State comes to recognise the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose, if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”

  Society then is to be reformed, according to Thoreau’s doctrine, by individual effort, and the gospel which he preaches to the individual is that of simplicity. Simplification of life (by which is meant a questioning, and perhaps rejection, of the various artificial “comforts” and luxuries, and a dependence only on the actual necessaries-food, shelter, clothing, and fuel) is repeatedly advocated by Thoreau, from his own practical experience, as lending strength, courage, and self-reliance to the individual character, and so, in proportion to the extent of its practice, to the State. The following passage from Walden contains the essence of his teaching on this most important point:

  “Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half-a-dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nails. . . . The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way, are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture, and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it, as for therein, is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan severity of life and elevation of purpose.”

  It must be repeated that this doctrine, however strange and unpalatable it may be to the popular mood, is not that of an ascetic. The simplicity which Thoreau inculcates does not, like asceticism, renounce the luxuries of life by way of a religious penance, but because it is convinced that life, on the whole, is healthier and happier without them. What he urges is not that men should deny themselves certain comforts while they still believe them to be comforts, but that in each case they should test the truth by the criterion of practical experience, and not continue to regard as necessaries many things which a day’s trial would prove to be superfluous and perhaps actually harmful. This distinction between a natural taste and an acquired habit is a vital one, yet it is generally overlooked by the opponents of Thoreau’s philosophy. He laughs at the absurdity of those writers who talk of the usefulness of “artificial wants” in drawing out the resources of nature, since every artificial want must of necessity bring with it its own Nemesis of proportionally increased toil; whereas, on the contrary, the practice of hardihood and frugality is productive of health, independence, and restfulness both to body and mind. In a word, the simplicity which he preaches is based not on the repression, but rather on the better gratification, of the true pleasures of existence. Which is the more enjoyable to indulge—the spiritual instincts or the sensual? Let each man make his own choice; but let him at least be sure that he is really following his own tastes, and not merely conforming to the dictates of custom and tradition.

  The charge often made against Thoreau, that he is in opposition to the course of modern progress, and prefers savagery to civilisation, is only tenable on a very short-sighted and perfunctory view of the meaning of his gospel. He himself notes in his diary that his lectures used to call forth such inquiries as “Would you have us return to the savage state?”—a misconception of his meaning which was doubtless rendered more general by his brevity of speech, epigrammatic tone, and characteristic unwillingness to explain himself. But a careful study of his writings as a whole, and of Walden in particular, can leave us in no doubt as to his true position on this point. He expressly states his belief that civilisation is a real advance in the condition of mankind, and that the farmer displaces the Indian “because he redeems the meadow, and so makes himself stronger and in some respects more natural.” But, while making this admission, he points out what is too often overlooked by comfortable statisticians, that, though the majority of civilised men are better situated than the savage, there is a minority which is not so. “Perhaps it will be found,” he says, “that just in proportion as some have been placed in outward circumstances above the savage, others have been degraded below him. The luxury of one class is counterbalanced by the indigence of another. On the one side is the palace, on the other are the almshouse and silent poor. It is a mistake to suppose that, in a country where the usual evidences of civilisation exist, the condition of a very large body of the inhabitants may not be as degraded as that of savages.” He asserts, then, that the problem to which we should apply ourselves is how “to combine the hardiness of the savage with the intellectualness of the civilised man.” When he inveighs against the numerous follies, and defects, and diseases observable in civilisation, he does so, not because he doubts or denies its superiority to the savage state, but because (to quote his own words) he wishes “to show at what a sacrifice this advantage is at present obtained, and to suggest that we may possibly so live as to secure all the advantage without suffering any of the disadvantage.”

  In the same connection it should be noted that Thoreau exhibits no reactionary feeling against the strides made by science and modern mechanical invention, however strongly he may protest against the unnecessary desecration of natural scenery. He descants on the enterprise, courage, and alertness of commerce, which goes steadily on its path undismayed and unhindered by the obstacles of climate and season, and declares that it cheered him in his Walden hermitage when he heard the train rattle past each morning on its road to Boston. All he desiderates is a worthier object as the end and aim of so much toil and industry. “If all,” he exclaims, “were as it seems, and men made the elements their servants for noble ends! If the cloud that hangs over the engine were the perspiration of heroic deeds, or as beneficent as that which floats over the farmer’s fields, then the elements and nature herself would cheerfully accompany men on their errands and be their escort.” Nor was he, as some have supposed, an enemy to art, though he may have been, as Emerson says, “insensible to some fine traits of culture.” He did not wish to banish ornament from our dwellings, except such as is external and superficial, a mere conventional and fashionable appendage, instead of what it should be, a simple and natural growth. “What of architectural beauty I now see, I know has gradually grown from within outward, out of the necessities and character of the indweller, who is the only builder—out of some unconscious truthfulness and nobleness, without ever a thought for the appearance; and whatever additional beauty of this kind is destined to be produced will be preceded by a like unconscious beauty of life. The most interesting dwellings in this country, as the painter knows, are the most unpretending humble log-huts and cottages of the poor commonly; it is the life of the inhabitants whose shells they are, and not any peculiarity in these surfaces merely, that makes them picturesque; and equally interesting will be the citizen’s suburban box when his life shall be as simple and agreeable to the imagination, and there is as little straining after effect in the style of his dwelling.”

  It may here be worth while to inquire how far these principles of individualism and simplicity were meant by Thoreau to be applied, and how far they were rightly applicable, to the social question of his time. There is no indication whatever in any of his writings that he intended his doctrines to be understood, directly and literally, as containing a panacea for human ills; he did not wish his fellow-beings to leave their towns and villages in order to live in shanties, nor was he under the impression, as some of his critics would have us believe, that the inhabitants of crowded cities were free to march out and live in blissful seclusion in some neighbouring wood. Thoreau, whatever the limitations of his genius may have been, was a shrewd and clear-sighted man; and if any of his readers find themselves attributing to him such ineptitudes as those just mentioned, they may feel assured that the misunderstanding is on their own side, and that by lack of sympathy they have failed to grasp his true meaning. It should be remembered that he wrote primarily and immediately for his own fellow-citizens of Concord and a limited New England audience; and, further, that the social problem was far less difficult and complex at that time in New England than it is now after a lapse of thirty or forty years. Extreme poverty was a rare exception and not a normal condition among the peasantry of Concord; there was far more elbow-room and opportunity for individual effort than in an English country town, so that an example such as that set by Thoreau was not by any means the impossibility which it would have been in other places and under other circumstances. As a matter of fact, he seldom recommended his own way of living to his neighbours or fellow-townsmen, being convinced that each man must shape his own career; though in one or two cases, as in the conversation with a thriftless Irish labourer, recorded in Walden, we find him pointing out the advantages of a frugal diet, since those who can dispense with tea, coffee, butter, milk, and flesh-meat can also spare themselves the heavy labour which is required to purchase these unnecessary “comforts.” But in so far as Thoreau addressed his doctrines to the general public, it was distinctly not with the intent of persuading them to live as he did, but in the hope of stimulating independent thought by the force of his example and admonition, and of drawing attention to those simple common-sense principles of frugality and hardihood without which there can be no lasting health or contentment either for individual or community.

  It has been remarked of Thoreau that in his whole works one can find no trace of pity.4 If it were possible at all to maintain this assertion, it could only be in the limited sense that he dwells usually on the iniquity of the wrong-doer rather than on the feelings of the sufferer; he does not, for instance, express his pity for the slave (though we know from the accounts already quoted how strong his pity was), but he shows it in a more practical form by his attitude towards the slaveholder. In the case of animals, however, the statement is absolutely groundless, for the traces of Thoreau’s pity for animal suffering are quite unmistakable. It is true that, with his characteristic dislike of system, he disclaims any distinct theory of compassion, while his optimistic belief in the beneficence of nature prevents him from repining at the mere existence of suffering and wrong. “I love,” he says, “to see that nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another. . . . With the liability to accident, we must see how little account is to be made of it. The impression made on a wise man is that of universal innocence. Compassion is a very untenable ground. It must be expeditious. Its pleadings will not bear to be stereotyped.” Nevertheless, Thoreau is himself one of the humanest of writers, and has contributed to the literature of humanitarianism some of its most striking protests. His detestation of war was shown in his refusal to pay the poll-tax at the time when the United States made an unjustifiable attack on Mexico. He declares fighting to be “a damnable business,” and at variance with the will and conscience of those compelled to engage in it—“soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, powder-monkeys, and all.” Of his opinions concerning slaveholding it is not necessary to say more; but there is a remarkable saying of his about John Brown which deserves to be quoted in this connection. Noting the fact that Brown had not received a college education, but had studied Liberty in “the great University of the West,” he adds: “Such were his humanities, and not any study of grammar. He would have left a Greek accent slanting the wrong way, and righted up a falling man.” It would be well if all our professors and students of literæ humaniores would lay this admirable sentiment to heart.

  I have stated that Thoreau was, or seemed to be, in some relations unsympathetic. Among his most marked antipathies must be counted the strong dislike he felt for professional “philanthropy.” “What a foul subject,” he says in his Letters, “is this of doing good, instead of minding one’s life, which should be his business; doing good as a dead carcass, which is only fit for manure, instead of as a living man,—instead of taking care to flourish, and, smell, and taste sweet, and refresh all mankind to the extent of our capacity and quality. If I ever did a man any good, in their sense, of course it was something exceptional and insignificant compared with the good or evil which I am constantly doing by being what I am.” Humane though he was, he felt that philanthropy “ is not love for one’s fellowman in the broadest sense”; not the flower and fruit of a man’s character, but only the stem and leaves; not the constant superfluity of his benevolence, but a “partial and transitory act” in which there is frequently too large an admixture of self-consciousness. “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce the misery which he strives in vain to relieve. Some show their kindness to the poor by employing them in their kitchens. Would they not be kinder if they employed themselves there? . . . If you have ever been betrayed into any of these philanthropies, do not let your left hand know what your right hand does, for it is not worth knowing. Rescue the drowning and tie your shoe-strings. Take your time and set about some free labour.” The sharpness of tone in Thoreau’s remarks on this subject may perhaps be pardoned him, in view of the real insight and wisdom which are indicated by his words.

  Humanity to animals was one of the most conspicuous virtues in Thoreau’s character, and is constantly, if indirectly, advocated in his writings. His conception of the animal races has been described as “a sort of mystic evolution.”—“If we take the ages into account,” he says, “may there not be a civilisation going on among brutes as well as men?” Thus he regards the foxes as “rudimental burrowing men, still standing on their defence, awaiting their transformation”; while the dog is to the fox as the white man to the red. The horse appears to him as a human being in a humble state of existence, and the human way in which the oxen behave when loosed from the yoke at evening affects him pathetically. The wild shaggy moose in the Maine forests are “moose-men, clad in a sort of Vermont gray or homespun,” and he expresses respect even for the skunk, for its suggested resemblance to one of the human aborigines of the country. Individuality is recognised and respected by Thoreau in the nonhuman no less than the human races; he complains of man’s “not educating the horse, not trying to develop his nature, but merely getting work out of him.” It was this sense of brotherhood, as I have already remarked, which gave Thoreau his extraordinary power over beasts and birds; and his singular humanity to animals is due to the same source. “No humane being,” he says, “past the age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature which holds its life by the same tenure as he does. The hare in its extremity cries like a child. I warn you, mothers, that my sympathies do not always make the usual philanthropic distinctions.” It has been recorded by Emerson that when some one urged a vegetable diet, Thoreau, true to his contradictory humour, “thought all diets a very small matter, and that the man who shoots the buffalo lives better than the man who boards at the Graham House.” Yet he was himself during a great part of his life a vegetarian in practice, and has thus stated his opinion concerning the humanities of diet:

  “It may be vain to ask why the imagination will not be reconciled to flesh and fat. I am satisfied that it is not. Is it not a reproach that man is a carnivorous animal? True, he can and does live, in a great measure, by preying on other animals, but this is a miserable way, as any one who will go to snaring rabbits, or slaughtering lambs, may learn, and he will be regarded as a benefactor of his race who shall teach man to confine himself to a more innocent and wholesome diet. Whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilised.”

  Here, as in other points, Thoreau did not trouble himself on the score of absolute consistency either in his practice or theory. He has recorded in the Week how, when his brother and he were sitting down to an outdoor repast, a sudden compunction fell upon them for the pigeon they had slaughtered for their dinner. “It did not seem to be putting this bird to its right use to pluck off its feathers and extract its entrails, and broil its carcass on the coals; but we heroically persevered, nevertheless, waiting for further information. The same regard for nature which excited our sympathy for her creatures nerved our hands to carry through what we had begun.” This seeming inconsistency is explained by the chapter in Walden, entitled “Higher Laws,” in which he recognises two instincts in the human mind, one towards a higher, or spiritual, mode of life, the other towards a primitive, rank, and savage one, and declares that he reverences them both; “the wild not less than the good.” But, on the whole, the tendency of his writings is strongly in the direction of an enlarged sympathy and increasing humaneness. “His religion,” says Alcott, “was of the most primitive type, inclusive of all creatures and things, even to the sparrow that falls to the ground—though never by shot of his.”

  His position as a naturalist was strongly influenced by the same humane sentiments. His methods were not those of the anatomist and man of science; he held that “nature must be viewed humanly to be viewed at all, that is, her scenes must be associated with humane affections”; she was to him a living entity, to be loved and reverenced, and not a subject for cold and unimpassioned-ohservation. He thus states in his journal the cause of his divergence from the recognised scientific system. “I think the most important requisite in describing an animal is to be sure that you give its character and spirit, for in that you have, without error, the sum and effect of all its parts known and unknown. You must tell what it is to man. Surely the most important part of an animal is its anima, its vital spirit, on which is based its character and all the particulars by which it most concerns us. Yet most scientific books which treat of animals leave this out altogether, and what they describe are, as it were, phenomena of dead matter.” “What is man,” he says elsewhere, “is all in all; nature nothing but as she draws him out and reflects him.” Accordingly in his remarks on nature and natural history there is a decided prevalence of that peculiarly introspective and moralising mood, characteristic of the poet-naturalist as distinct from the scientist, which seeks to transmute the mere facts and results of external observation into symbolical thoughts and images which may illustrate the life of man. “The fact is,” says Thoreau himself, “I am a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot”; and this is certainly the impression which is conveyed by the mystic speculative tone which everywhere pervades the diaries in which he jotted down the results of his daily observation. It is this human self-consciousness that differentiates Thoreau from the naturalist and observer pure and simple, such as Gilbert White. It has been remarked by Mr. John Burroughs5 that it was super-natural rather than natural history that Thoreau studied, and that he made no discoveries of importance in the scientific field because he looked through nature instead of at her, and was “more intent on the natural history of his own thought than on that of the bird.”

  It is no doubt true that Thoreau’s keenness of vision was generally in proportion to the interest of the subject with which he had to deal; he saw what he already had in mind. As he himself remarks, “objects are concealed from our view, not so much because they are out of the course of our visual ray, as because we do not bring our minds and eyes to bear on them, for there is no power to see in the eye itself, any more than in any other jelly; we cannot see anything till we are possessed with the idea of it.” His observations, however, are not the less important because they differ from those acquired by the ordinary method; on the contrary, they are more valuable on that account, inasmuch as the poet is higher and rarer than the naturalist. Nathaniel Hawthorne has recorded how Thoreau was enabled by this inner faculty to see the waterlily as few others could see it; “he has beheld beds of them unfolding in due succession as the sunrise stole gradually from flower to flower—a sight not to be hoped for, unless when a poet adjusts his inward eye to a proper focus with the outward organ.” “His power of observation,” says Emerson, “seemed to indicate additional senses. He saw as with microscope, heard as with ear-trumpet, and his memory was a photographic register of all he saw and heard. And yet none knew better than he that it is not the fact that imports, but the impression or effect of the fact on your mind. Every fact lay in glory in his mind, a type of the order and beauty of the whole.” This idealistic quality constitutes the peculiar property of Thoreau’s teaching on the subject of nature; but that it did not disqualify him for doing good service as a scientific observer may be gathered from the remarkable tribute which has recently been paid to him by one of Darwin’s followers and interpreters:

  “Like no one else, he knew the meaning of every note and movement of bird and beast, and fish and insect. Born out of due time, just too early for the great change in men’s views of nature which transferred all interest in outer life from the mere dead things one sees in museums to their native habits and modes of living, he was yet in some sort a vague and mystical anticipatory precursor of the modem school of functional biologists . . . . Page after page of his diary notes facts about the pollen showers of pine-trees, the fertilisation of skunk-cabbage, the nesting of birds, the preferences of mink or musk-rat, the courtship of butterflies, all of a piece with those minute observations on which naturalists nowadays build their most interesting theories.”6

  The conclusion of our view of Thoreau’s doctrines thus brings us back to the contention with which we started. (He was an idealist who looked through the outer husk and surface of life, and saw the true reality in what to most men is but a vision and a dream. He had in large measure what Emerson calls “the philosopher’s perception of identity”; the phenomena of time and space did not affect him—Walden Pond was to him an Atlantic Ocean, a moment was eternity. “Shams and delusions,” he says, “are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous. If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights entertainment. If we respected only what is inevitable and has a right to be, music and poetry would resound along the streets. When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence—that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadows of the reality. I perceive that we inhabitants of New England live this mean life that we do, because our vision does not penetrate the surface of things. We think that that is which appears to be.” The means on which he relies for the correction of this state of delusion are the independence of the individual mind, and those simple, practical modes of living which alone can render a man independent. Finally, for all his asperity of tone in the reproof of what he considered to be blameworthy, he was a firm believer in the gradual progress and ultimate renovation of mankind, being convinced that improvement is “the only excuse for reproduction.” It was no cynical or misanthropic faith that found expression in the concluding passage of his Walden:

  “Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at first in the albumum of the green and living tree, which has been gradually converted into the semblance of its well-seasoned tomb,-heard perchance gnawing out now for years by the astonished family of man as they sat round the festive board,—may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society’s most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!”

1 Prof. Nichol’s American Literature.
2 Emerson in Concord, 1889.
3 Mr. Henry James.
4 R. L. Stevenson: Men and Books.
5 The Century, July 1882.
6 Grant Allen, Fortnightly Review, May 1888.

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