American Diogenes – Henry David Thoreau’s Living Philosophy

Philosophy’s not about having “subtle thoughts” but about loving wisdom so much that you “live according to its dictates”

- 13 min read

There is a type of temperament that, when mixed with philosophy, produces a very interesting flowering of the human condition.

Diogenes the Cynic is one that we looked at in a previous episode. The Ancient Roman senator Cato the Younger is another. He became so drenched in Stoic philosophy that he became a living embodiment of its values; as his biographers noted, he made a dirty word out of compromise:

“Cato made a career out of purity, out of his refusal to give an inch in the face of pressure to compromise and deal. [His political approach was] designed to elicit one of two things from his enemies: either total surrender or (in Cato’s eyes) a kind of moral capitulation.”

Thoreau is cut from the same cloth as these ancients. It seems that in the mixing of his native temperament with the foremost philosopher of America at the time — his neighbour and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson — a chemical reaction occurred in the soul of Thoreau that reproduced this classical flower of philosophy.

In decrypting the living philosophy of Henry David Thoreau, the red thread that runs through his entire story is integrity. Being loyal to truth and principle was at the core of Thoreau’s being. It informs his political actions and his philosophical lifestyle.

In this article, we will explore the different facets of this shining but uncompromising virtue that manifests itself so powerfully in his two greatest works — Walden and On Civil Disobedience.

To the haters of Thoreau

This is the first in a two-part series on Thoreau. This is an exposition of the reasons that the philosopher is someone that we can aspire to learn from. But, not all agree. In fact, Thoreau is a surprisingly divisive philosopher.

In the complementary article, we will be exploring why he has become the philosopher it is popular to hate. No other philosopher has had their reputation mortally wounded by the question of who did their laundry (in fact I have never come across another philosopher whose laundry circumstances have merited commentary — a regrettable oversight of philosophical biographies throughout the ages).

Of course, the reasons for this disparagement are obvious: Thoreau’s reputation is polarised. For some he is an ecological messiah, an ideal of living philosophy that we ought to strive for; for the opposing camp he is a liar who he did not live up to the standards he set for himself — his mother did his laundry, he was not a hermit living in sublime isolation and for boot he could be quite rude.

Sufficed to say the following article falls in the former camp. While I try to avoid the panegyrical portrait of Thoreau as a hermit sage, nevertheless I see in him a tradition of philosophy as something that must be lived continuing on. I am also not convinced by the charges against him — the oft-cited laundry claim in particular seems to have been a completely fabricated story that is parroted without any historical grounding. But aside from this, as we shall see in the next article, his reputation has been done undue damage by the overly beatified image of him among his adoring devotees. He never claimed to live a hermit’s life (au contraire!) and his disagreeableness tended to be levelled at those who were less than admirable such as his contemporaries who were anti-abolition. In the meantime there are fantastic articles on the subject by Donovan Hohn and Rebecca Solnit that I would highly recommend.  

The Long Foreground of Henry David Thoreau

“H is military H seemed stubborn + implacable; always manly + wise, but rarely sweet. One would say that as Webster could never speak without an antagonist, so H does not feel himself except in opposition. He wants a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory, requires a little sense of victory, a roll of the drums to call his power into full exercise”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, MiscellaneousJournals (p.183)

Thoreau was an uncompromising force of nature; he did not let mundane concerns stand in the way of truth. When he graduated from Harvard, Thoreau took a job as a teacher in his hometown school in Concord, Massachusetts, but he was fired within two weeks because he refused to administer corporal punishment to his students.

He protested against the Fugitive Slave Law, supported the radical abolitionist John Brown and his party and later served as a conductor on the underground railroad to help escaped slaves make their way to Canada.

During his great living experiment at Walden Pond, he was arrested and spent a night in prison because he refused to pay a poll tax. This refusal was not a matter of money but of principle. He refused to pay because he did not want to contribute to slavery and to what he saw as the unjust American-Mexican War.

This was the event that inspired his essay On Civil Disobedience. This essay was a major inspiration for the most influential protesters of the 20th century — Gandhi and Martin Luther King. When a journalist asked Gandhi if he had read Thoreau, he replied:

“Why, of course I read Thoreau. I read Walden first in Johannesburg in South Africa in 1906 and his ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian independence. Why, I actually took the name of my movement from Thoreau’s essay, ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,’ written about eighty years ago.

Despite the comfort and distance of Concord from the problems of slavery, Thoreau castigated his peers for their apathy and did what he could to be true to his high moral principles. His support of John Brown, his conducting on the underground railroad and his act of civil disobedience are all testaments to a man who did not march to the drumbeat of those around him.

He was prickly and disagreeable — a vice that was the symptom of his greatest virtue. Like Cato and Diogenes, Thoreau was true to his principles though it alienated him from his peers. He was an acolyte of justice, truth and integrity, and this was not idle philosophy for Thoreau but something that he lived and breathed.

Like Cato and Diogenes and all the great ancient philosophers, Thoreau’s philosophy was coextensive with his philosophy. There is no greater example of this than his famous experiment in living at Walden Pond.

After leaving his job at the local schoolhouse, Thoreau went to work at his father’s pencil factory for a time but before long Emerson invited him to be a live-in handyman at his home.

Emerson encouraged Thoreau to start keeping a journal — a project that ultimately amounted to over two million words by his premature death at the age of 44. Emerson also encouraged Thoreau to become a writer, and this was one of the reasons that Thoreau set about building a cabin on Emerson’s patch of forest by the shores of Walden Pond.

The Walden Rebellion

Title page from first edition of Walden in 1854

On the 4th of July 1845, Thoreau moved into his cabin and there he lived for the next two years, two months and two days. Thoreau wanted to try an experiment where he inverted the traditional working pattern of his countrymen. Instead of working six days a week and having one day for Sabbath he wanted to see if it was possible to work for one day a week and have six days dedicated to higher purposes.

He would rise every morning and bathe in the pond which was for him a religious exercise. He would spend his days on long walks exploring the countryside and making close observation of the natural world. He lived this simple life for two years.

The book Walden was born out of the questions of the people of Concord who were curious about Thoreau’s peculiar mode of living.

Though he lived in his solitary cabin alone, he was not a misanthropist or a recluse. He would sometimes travel into Concord for supplies and would eat with his family once a week.

In many ways, this experiment in alternative living at Walden was a rebellion against the industriousness of American culture. For Thoreau:

It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself. Talk of a divinity in man! Look at the teamster on the highway, wending to market by day or night; does any divinity stir within him? His highest duty to fodder and water his horses! What is his destiny to him compared with the shipping interests? […] How godlike, how immortal, is he? See how he cowers and sneaks, how vaguely all the day he fears, not being immortal nor divine, but the slave and prisoner of his own opinion of himself […]

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work.” (Thoreau 1989: 7–8)

The cultural trend has certainly not taken the Thoreauvian way and the speed of life has only increased since his time. The American prepossession with industriousness at any cost has consumed the civilised world.

Thoreau’s voice stands as a discordant harmony in this wall of industrial noise. He once wrote that “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” (ibid. p.82) His motto was to simplify, simplify.

This American Diogenes wants us to wake up from what he describes in Walden as the “restless, nervous, bustling, trivial” (ibid. p.329) din of modern life. Thoreau believed that “the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality” (Thoreau 2012: 86) So much of modernity’s industriousness is gratuitous tail-chasing.

But for Thoreau, man had a higher purpose. We have forgotten that we work in order to live and not the other way around. He thought of the basics of life in a very similar way to Epicurus which we looked at in a previous article but Thoreau goes beyond it to an Aristotelian concern with the flourishing of humanity:

When a man is warmed by the several modes which I have described, what does he want next? Surely not more warmth of the same kind, as more and richer food, larger and more splendid houses, finer and more abundant clothing, more numerous incessant and hotter fires, and the like. When he has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced. The soil, it appears, is suited to the seed, for it has sent its radicle downward, and it may now send its shoot upward also with confidence. Why has man rooted himself thus firmly in the earth, but that he may rise in the same proportion into the heavens above? — for the nobler plants are valued for the fruit they bear at last in the air and light, far from the ground, and are not treated like the humbler esculents, which, though they may be biennials, are cultivated only till they have perfected their root, and often cut down at top for this purpose, so that most would not know them in their flowering season. (Thoreau 1989: 15–16)

Like all great philosophers and mystics, Thoreau reminds us that man does not live by bread alone. It is a lack of imagination to think otherwise. We do not see — or we are too busy to see — that there is more to life than bigger houses, newer cars and eating fancier foods. We are caught in a race against the Joneses that serves neither party.

But out in the wildness — which Thoreau calls the tonic of the soul — you can hear a deeper call. You can hear the call of the wild, the call of the spirit, the call of the higher potentialities of your being. Most men live lives of quiet desperation. But there is an alternative.

A Traceable Path

That is what the experiment at Walden was about. He sets out to dispel the myth of simplicity’s unattainability by laying out the exact cost of building his house and growing his crops. After calculating the cost and profit of his whole experiment the final cost of his two years in Walden came to $25.21 (ibid. 55), which, going by an online inflation calculator, comes to $710.90 in modern currency for two years of living.

This is the level of practicality that Thoreau gets down to. He is a practical philosopher in the most admirable fashion. He is a man that felt compelled to live his philosophy and held others to the same exacting standards. He didn’t want to spend his life compromising to the opinion of the neighbours which — as we’ve seen in the contemporary opinions on slavery — are often far from admirable. Thoreau strove to embody his highest principles and one of these principles was to live life to the fullest:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…” (ibid. 90–91)

Cut From an Ancient Cloth

The Greek Thoreau

The living philosophy of the American Diogenes Thoreau is like that of his ancient counterparts in two fundamental ways.

The first tells us to be true to our highest principles and to put no stock in the opinions of our compromised peers. For this both were known to be difficult and prickly characters. As one friend of Thoreau’s Elizabeth Hoar remarked, “I love Henry, but I can never like him” (quoted in Walls 2017: 130).

Men like Diogenes, Cato and Thoreau are not easy to like. They have no time for the trivial warmth of daily friendship. They thirst for that which is higher. They march to a different drummer and the aloof distance of that drummer makes it difficult for others to follow.

The other Diogenean strain in Thoreau tells us to simplify our lives. We only have to satisfy our basic pleasures. By doing so we liberate ourselves from the shackles of the body which, after all, are only the roots of our being. Do not spend your whole life tending your roots when the true flourishing of humanity lies in its great towering shoots and the fruits that they bear. You are capable of more. Do not live a life of quiet desperation when the good life is within your reach. Thoreau asks us to join with him in living Spartan-like and sucking all the marrow out of life.

Like the ancient Cynic, Thoreau is a hard man to follow and his path is not for everyone. But their lives and words are like a gadfly irritating us, trying to awaken us to our higher potentialities. And in our modern age of rampant consumerism and consuming trivialities it’s a message I think we are all hungry for and that we all need to hear.


References:

  • Emerson, R.W. 1962. The journals and miscellaneous notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Vol.13., 1852–1855 (H. Orth, Alfred R. Ferguson, Eds.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  • Thoreau, H.D. 1989. Walden. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press
  • Thoreau, H.D. 2012. Civil disobedience, and other essays. New York, USA: Dover Thrift
  • Walls, L. D. 2017. Henry David Thoreau: A Life. Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press

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