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Henry David Thoreau|
Naturalist and Social Critic (1817-1862)
Since when have any of us been grateful for mosquitoes? Since 1854, when Thoreau wrote that he was “as much affected by the faint hum of a mosquito making its invisible and unimaginable tour” through his rooms as “by any trumpet that ever sang of fame.” He savored life in whatever form it came: “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience.” But it is not only Thoreau’s regard for ordinarily disdained aspects of life that makes him a master of gratefulness; it is also his radical social vision. His refusal to obey laws he considered unconscionable inspired Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and generations of peacemakers. Thoreau hoped to influence the quality of each day and would be surprised to know that he wound up affecting the quality of people’s lives on into the next millennium.
"If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs -- that is your success."
Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1817. He studied at Harvard College and worked for a time as a schoolteacher. He published two books, both of them virtually ignored in his lifetime. One of these, Walden, an account of his two years of elected solitude at Walden Pond, was subsequently acclaimed as an American classic. But in a sense Henry David Thoreau was himself an American classic. He embodied the spirit of nonconformity, the impulse to seek renewal in nature, and the will to stand firm by his convictions. Like the fictional Huckleberry Finn, afire with the urge to “light out for the territories,” Thoreau continuously sought to slip the bonds of social hypocrisy as well as the servitude that passed for civilized life. In the pursuit of truth he preferred to follow his own compass reading, indifferent as to whether it might lead him to solitude, to jail, or the ridicule of his neighbors.
Although he subscribed to no organized religion, there was in Thoreau something of the Taoist sage and the desert father. He too felt an intense need to dispense with socially defined values and instead to experience life “first-hand.” It was this desire that led him in 1845 to his famous retreat to Walden Pond, near Concord. There he sought to escape a world in which “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Like the early ascetics who fled to the desert, Thoreau was not so much renouncing “the world” as the “deadness” of life in the world. As he wrote, “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.”
In his book Thoreau provides a meticulous account of the details of his life, the construction of his house, the supply of his food, and his attention both to the world of nature round him and to his own inner world. He did not feel lonely, surrounded as he was by the company of Nature. Sitting in the rain, “Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me.”
Walden describes a kind of mystical rapture in the communion with Nature that speaks directly to the concerns of an ecological age. But for Thoreau, as for the desert fathers, the wilderness provides the setting for a journey of inner discovery: “There are continents and seas in the moral world to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him.”
In undertaking this moral exploration, Thoreau was not simply a “nature mystic,” rejecting the ugliness and stress of modern society. There was also a deeply ethical dimension to his flight. With his profound commitment to personal freedom he found it intolerable to live in a country in which slavery was permitted. The fact that Massachusetts was a “free state” was no salve to his offended conscience.
Many of his friends supported the abolitionist cause. But Thoreau was not content with words alone. In 1845, the same year as his retreat to Walden, he was arrested for refusing to pay a poll tax that was intended to finance the war with Mexico. Thoreau believed that this was an imperialist war that also served the extension of slavery. To the extent that the tax provided oil for the machine of injustice, Thoreau resolved to refuse the tax and to apply his small weight as a “counter-friction” to the machine.
It was no more than a gesture. After a night in jail his relatives paid the tax for him and won his release. But the experience inspired his essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” one of the most eloquent arguments ever written on the authority of conscience and the duty to resist legally sanctioned injustice. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, “he wrote, “the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
Thoreau’s message had little immediate impact in his own country. Most of his neighbors regarded him as a harmless crank, if not a social deviant. But by the end of the century his essay on civil disobedience had been discovered by the Russian novelist and moralist Leo Tolstoy. From Tolstoy it was discovered by the Indian Mahatma Gandhi. From Gandhi it was discovered by Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of the nonviolent freedom struggle in the United States. So, by this route, the spirit of Thoreau returned to his native land.
All this was unforeseen when Thoreau died of tuberculosis on May 6, 1862. Yet for all his years as a social critic, Thoreau had lived in a state of hope, “an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.” That hopeful note was sounded in the last lines of Walden: “The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”
Sincere thanks to Robert Ellsberg
for permission to use this chapter from his book All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses From Our Time. "Since soon after it came out; I have used this book for daily spiritual reading and still find it inspiring." —Br. David