Thoreau as a Philosopher

Henry David Thoreau’s views on life and society are not only integral to Transcendentalism, but are also regarded as quintessential American philosophy. A well read man, Thoreau studied a wide variety of texts, ranging from classical Greek to German Idealism and Hindu Law. However, arguably the most iconic aspects of Thoreau’s philosophy stem from his perceptions and observations of nature.

Thoreau uses nature as a cornerstone for many of his thoughts, noting that what people consider valuable actually does not have much worth beyond that which society has arbitrarily assigned it. However, real beauty and value can always be found in nature. Many of Thoreau’s philosophical ideas push for a separation between what an individual esteems with worth and what is valuable in the eyes of their society. Thoreau’s philosophies deconstruct many of the societal norms of the time by examining nature and solitude set against popular parts of 19th century American culture like institutionalized religion and a capitalist market.

Thoreau criticizes the idea of people mindlessly following the status quos of society without much thought or reason. Specifically, Thoreau questions the role of work in peoples’ lives. He writes that “Men have become the tools of their tools” (July 16, 1845, in his Journal, vol. II, p. 162), expressing frustration with how people work tirelessly and do not give much thought into why they are doing this work. They have adopted a machine like routine. Thoreau was by no means against jobs or working. As a writer, teacher, lecturer, pencil-maker, and handyman, as well as one of the biggest proponents of honest labor, Thoreau placed immense value in work. However, Thoreau was against some of the reasons why people choose to work so much. 

Thoreau was opposed to a capitalistic society that artificially placed value on items that would otherwise be worthless. Having lived through the California gold rush, he uses gold as an example, saying that people were “arbitrarily attached” to gold, regardless of its “intrinsic beauty or value” (October 13, 1860, in his Journal, vol. XIV, p. 119). He notes that gold has little practical value, yet society bolsters it’s worth and deems it to be one of the most precious metals. Thoreau certainly appreciated work and earning a living, as long as that money was used practically and for what people truly needed. However, he was deeply opposed to the idea of working away one’s days in order to purchase commodities that society deemed attractive or important. 

Instead, Thoreau thought that real beauty and value can be experienced in nature. He uses nature as a point of contrast from the entities that society arbitrarily assigns monetary worth, saying that true value can be seen in places like the woods. In particular, he notes that, “The mind that perceives clearly any natural beauty is in that instant withdrawn from human society. (July 26, 1852, in his Journal vol. X, p. 251). Here, he states that these two ideals of worth inherently stand at odds with each other. Society says that value is found in what society deems valuable, assigning luxury and expense to objects without much reason. Thoreau’s philosophy says that value is not inherently monetary and can be found anywhere, especially in the beauty of the natural world. One who adopts Thoreau’s philosophies for beauty and value will inherently stand at odds with some of the ideals of society, pushing luxury and money. 

In this vein, Thoreau advocated for living simplistically. He notes that many of the commodities we have in our lives are by no means necessary. In what is probably his most famous quotation, Thoreau notes that his intention with his Walden experiment is “to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms” (Walden 101). Thoreau looks down upon the concept of excess and luxury. By living at Walden Pond, a retreat away from the ideals of society, Thoreau sought to discover for himself what was truly essential to him. By doing so, he could better assign value and worth to the commodities in his life instead of mindlessly adhering to the norms of society.

As a result of this philosophy, Thoreau was deeply critical of the institutions normalized in his society. He, along with other Transcendentalists, were skeptical of the function of the church. Thoreau remarked: “Who are the religious? They… do not differ much from mankind generally” (November 20, 1858, in his Journal vol. XI, p. 338). He questions the point of institutionalized  religion, noting that nothing substantial differentiates those in the church hierarchy from those who are not. Thoreau thought that God could be among him just as much as He is among any priest. Transcendental philosophy hinges on the idea that there is divinity within everyone and everything. For more information on Thoreau’s religious perspectives, click here.  Similarly, Thoreau was deeply opposed to the government’s role in society. Fundamentally, Thoreau believed that less government is better. He did not want the government to impede on one’s own liberties. More important though, Thoreau was deeply opposed to slavery. He was appalled by the fact that the government was asking him to pay taxes to support endeavours which furthered the agenda of slavery. As such, he refused to recognize a institution which perpetuated slavery as his own government. For more information on Thoreau and politics, click here.

Ultimately, Thoreau’s philosophies critically examined institutions and ideals normalized by his society. By spending time in nature, Thoreau was able to reflect on these systems. He endeavored to think for himself instead of mindlessly following the trends of capitalism. Furthermore, his philosophies also criticized the formal institutions of his society. His dissent against the church and the government demonstrate how Thoreau poked holes in organizations very few dared to question.