There could be no Henry David Thoreau without a Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson glorified the individual independence of the new American; Thoreau evolved that into a nation-less, anarchic, natural man of subjective conscience.
In 1838, Harvard College exiled a young James Russell Lowell to the tutelage of a minister in Concord, Massachusetts, a suspension for his loose attention to studies. Here, he became friendly with Ralph Waldo Emerson and joined him for dinners with other young men who came to learn from the rising American philosopher. These fetes appalled Lowell. Rather than using the opportunity to converse with the great man, attendees transformed into fawning groupies. Whenever Emerson made some statement, instead of engaging him, they merely replied compliantly “wouldn’t it?” and “isn’t it?” One of the worst offenders was twenty-one-year-old Concord native Henry David Thoreau. “It is exquisitely amusing to see how he imitates Emerson’s tone & manner,” Lowell observed. “With my eyes shut I shouldn’t know them apart.” The encounter marked the beginning of a life-long animosity between the two and of Thoreau’s entrance into New England Transcendentalism.
Today, everyone seemingly loves Henry David Thoreau, from celebrities to fellow writers to peace activists to libertarians to undergraduates to graduation speakers cherry-picking quotes. Left and Right follow him passionately. They point to Ghandi’s and Martin Luther King’s extolling of Civil Disobedience and to the inspirational role Walden and his travel books continue to play in the environmental movement. The postwar libertarian Frank Chodorov viewed Thoreau as a freedom fighter for individualism. There are good reasons, however, to avoid the Concord hermit as a guide.
The “I hate Thoreau” literature occupies a decent-size bookshelf and much of the ground it covers are familiar. Thoreau was a colossal egotist. Lowell saw this as Thoreau’s most obvious and obnoxious flaw: “He seems to me to have been a man with so high a conceit of himself that he accepted without questioning, and insisted on our accepting, his defects and weaknesses of character as virtues and powers peculiar to himself.” The Harvard literary scholar Barrett Wendell noted in his Literary History of America that Thoreau thankfully did not have a wife, “and as nobody was dependent on him for support, his method of life could do no harm.” The remoteness and solitude he advocated in Walden are just as often a sign of malevolence as virtue. Lowell viewed the distaste for community as sickness:
It is a morbid self-consciousness that pronounces the world of men empty and worthless before trying it, the instinctive evasion of one who is sensible of some innate weakness, and retorts the accusation of it before any has made it but himself. To a healthy mind, the world is a constant challenge of opportunity. Mr. Thoreau had not a healthy mind, or he would not have been so fond of prescribing. His whole life was a search for the doctor… The dignity of man is an excellent thing, but therefore to hold one’s self too sacred and precious is the reverse of excellent. There is something delightfully absurd in six volumes addressed to a world of such ‘vulgar fellows’ as Thoreau affirmed his fellowmen to be.
The Scottish Tory novelist Robert Louis Stevenson regarded this attitude with even greater hatred, calling Thoreau “dry, priggish, and selfish,” comparing his hosannahs to virtuous solitude to that of an opium addict hiding from the world through a drug-hazed stupor.
The classic critique of Thoreau, of course, is the hypocrisy of claiming isolation at Walden, while routinely enjoying the civilized fruits of greater Concord. He admired the railroads, borrowed books from Harvard (after brow-beating the college president for library privileges), and visited neighbors. “He squatted on another man’s land; he borrows an axe; his boards, his nails, his bricks, his mortar, his books, his lamp, his fish-hooks, his plough, his hoe, all turn state’s evidence against him as an accomplice in the sin of that artificial civilization which rendered it possible that such a person as Henry D. Thoreau should exist at all,” Lowell complained. Nonetheless, a cult of followers formed around him, believing he held the world’s answers. He held them in contempt, reported Emerson, “never affectionate, but superior, didactic—scorning their petty ways” and only begrudgingly breaking bread with them. In the end, even Emerson regarded him as a wasted talent, a man who instead of leading a movement, left town to become “captain of a huckleberry-party.”
True as these criticisms may be, they also point to an element of tragedy. Thoreau perceptively diagnosed difficulties at the heart of American liberalism but, mis-defining “conscience,” veered onto the Romantic path and took Transcendentalism to its ultimate radical conclusions—a society of deracinated individuals opposing any institutions, customs, or traditions that obstruct their immediate desires.
In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau identified the moral violence committed by majoritarian democracy in antebellum America, that in matters of good and evil citizens placed their bets behind parties and candidates and, like gambling on the roulette table, hoped their number would come up. If they lost, there was always another game. This logic of mediating essential moral issues lay at the heart of liberalism and its blossoming in the seventeenth century. Thomas Hobbes observed the bloody contention of the English Civil War and grounded morality in self-interest rather than the universal principles of medieval scholasticism. Government and law created justice—every man pursuing his own happiness without murdering his neighbor in the process. John Locke did the same by curbing behavior (and government) that infringed upon natural rights to life, liberty, and property, yet never asking the dangerous question, “Liberty to do what?” Posing that question implied a morality outside human choosing, an objective good and evil grounded in human ends rather than subjective decision-making, and (for liberals) that is how civil wars and disorder start. As the philosopher Thomas Pink puts it, unlike Catholic theologians Francisco Suarez and Robert Bellarmine, Locke only focuses on civil punishment to define good and evil, not any preexisting moral obligation of the will. “There is no distinctive vis directiva of obligatoriness generated by those commands that applies to and binds the will itself.” Liberalism emerged to avoid asking hard questions about human nature.
Thoreau pulled back the liberal curtain covering human moral obligations in the nineteenth century and sharply critiqued Enlightenment liberalism, seeing in it a sacrifice of the Good for a process that leads to moral indifference and skepticism. If human morality is important—if we believe in good and evil, right and wrong—how can we leave it to the ballot box? Leaving moral decisions to elections means you really don’t care.
But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?—in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.
Thoreau makes a key point here. Liberalism and conscience are at cross purposes. The former demands you respect the law no matter what, while the latter asks to identify what is right first before assenting to law. Thoreau indicts liberalism for undermining the moral life. In addition, he makes another essential point that no faculty exists in vain. Eyes are for sight, ears for hearing, and reason for understanding. Why are humans endowed with a conscience only to surrender it to a majority?
St. Thomas Aquinas defines conscience as an act where moral “knowledge [is] applied to a particular case.” Moral knowledge is not a voyage of self-discovery, but the application of right reason to the examination of natural law. Thomists have elaborated on St. Thomas’s definition. “It is not sufficient to consider the natural law theoretically, it must be applied practically,” the Christian Brother Louis of Poissy declared. “To do this is the work of conscience.” The Belgian Jesuit Charles Coppens S.J. defined conscience as “the human intellect applying the general principles of morals to individual acts… a practical judgement formed by reasoning from a universal principle to a particular fact, whereby I decide whether a certain individual act ought to be done or omitted, or whether it may be done or omitted, at my choice.” Coppens’ Jesuit counterpart in England, Father Joseph Rickaby S.J. describes it as
Eternal Law, as made known to the rational creature, whereby to measure its own free acts… It is not a faculty, not a habit, it is an act. It is a practical judgment of the understanding. It is virtually the conclusion of a syllogism, the major premise of which would be some general principle of command or counsel in moral matters; the minor, a statement of the fact bringing some particular case of your own conduct under that law; and the conclusion, which is conscience, a decision of the case for yourself according to that principle.
Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier reminded that moral knowledge is immutable and “universally known,” and that “no man who has come to the use of reason can be ignorant of it without being responsible for his ignorance.” Backed by moral knowledge, conscience brings the obligation of application and use.
Having asked the right questions of liberalism and moral duty, Thoreau then proceeds to define conscience as grounded in interior decision-making of the subjective self: “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.” Such a conscience floats on personal experience, sensations, and passions, not the foundation of moral knowledge. Thoreau mistakes his conscience for the moral law, rather than an act based upon that law. “Conscience is not the moral law, but supposes it, as a consequent supposes its antecedent,” Louis of Poissy explained. “To make conscience the sole foundation of the morality of obligations, as do rationalists, is to confound the application of the law, with the law itself. It is even to attribute infallibility to conscience, and thus to contradict both faith and reason.” The political theorist Nancy L. Rosenblum refers to Thoreau’s conception of conscience as the inner voice of “genius”:
For Thoreau conscience was secular, and removed from its original theological meaning, where it had to do with obedience to God—with sin, faith, and doubt… By contrast, Thoreau’s conscience did not depend on the existence of general rules or abstract principles of right. In morals, as in politics, he was subjective and antilegalistic… Conscience is a felt experience, which makes itself known as a sort of compulsion; Thoreau spoke of an inner voice that is intangible, unspecifiable, and probably evanescent. Conscience has no permanent identifiable content for Thoreau. Unlike a catalog of right conduct, it cannot be taught; unlike ancient virtue, goodness is not social behavior turned habit.
No wonder contemporaries reported him a cold, distant, grim figure. He once declined an invitation from a friend by replying, “Such are my engagements to myself, that I dare not promise.” Thoreau’s conscience reflected his worship of self.
By this definition of conscience, Thoreau marked the inevitable outcome of Emersonian Transcendentalism and its pursuit of individualism, what Lowell called “a sudden mental and moral mutiny” in antebellum America. It chased a sort of Rousseauean simple life in tune with nature and free from the burden of institutions, customs, traditions, laws, and moral expectations. Lowell continued,
Every possible form of intellectual and physical dyspepsia brought forth its gospel… Everybody had a mission (with a capital M) to attend to everybody-else’s business. No brain but had its private maggot, which must have found pitiably short commons sometimes. Not a few impecunious zealots abjured the use of money (unless earned by other people), professing to live on the internal revenues of the spirit… Communities were established where everything was to be common but common-sense. Men renounced their old gods, and hesitated only whether to bestow their furloughed allegiance on Thor or [Buddha]. Conventions were held for every hitherto inconceivable purpose. The belated gift of tongues, as among Fifth Monarchy men, spread like a contagion, rendering its victims incomprehensible to all Christian men… All stood ready at a moment’s notice to reform everything but themselves.
There could be no Thoreau without an Emerson. Thoreau’s works are “strawberries from [Emerson’s] own garden,” Lowell wrote. Emerson glorified the individual independence of the new American; Thoreau evolved that into a nation-less, anarchic, natural man of subjective conscience.
Thoreau grounds moral obligation in himself. Instead of appealing to the rich Catholic natural law tradition that could have separated him from Emerson and launching a broadside on Jacksonian American mores, he stayed on the comfortable path of romantic Transcendentalism and followed it to its natural ends—radical individualism, egotism, subjectivism, and the cult of the Self.
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The featured image is a portrait photograph from a ninth-plate daguerreotype of Henry David Thoreau (1856) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.