One Small Voice: The Journal of Peter Saint-Andre


Thoreau and the Seasons of Man

2014-07-05

This evening I finished reading Thoreau's first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Toward the very end, he writes as follows:

In summer we live out of doors, and have only impulses and feelings, which are all for action, and must wait commonly for the stillness and longer nights of autumn and winter before any thought will subside; we are sensible that behind the rustling leaves, and the stacks of grain, and the bare clusters of the grape, there is the field of a wholly new life, which no man has lived; that even this earth was made for more mysterious and nobler inhabitants than men and women. In the hues of October sunsets, we see the portals to other mansions than those which we occupy, not far off geographically.

[...]

The moon no longer reflects the day, but rises to her absolute rule, and the husbandman and hunter acknowledge her for their mistress. Asters and golden-rods reign along the way, and the life-everlasting withers not. The fields are reaped and shorn of their pride, but an inward verdure still crowns them. The thistle scatters its down on the pool, and yellow leaves clothe the vine, and naught disturbs the serious life of men. But behind the sheaves, and under the sod, there lurks a ripe fruit, which the reapers have not gathered, the true harvest of the year, which it bears forever, annually watering and maturing it, and man never severs the stalk which bears this palatable fruit.

I see a connection to a paragraph (previously quoted) from one of his Letters to Harrison Blake:

Some absorbing employment on your higher ground,—your upland farm,—whither no cart-path leads, but where you mount alone with your hoe,—where the life everlasting grows; there you raise a crop which needs not to be brought down into the valley to a market; which you barter for heavenly products.

Thoreau, simultaneously naturalist and transcendentalist, always perceives the possibility of living a higher life, even partaking in moments of immortality ("the life everlasting"), as hinted in the same section of A Week:

Sometimes a mortal feels in himself Nature, not his Father but his Mother stirs within him, and he becomes immortal with her immortality. From time to time she claims kindredship with us, and some globule from her veins steals up into our own.

For Thoreau, such thoughts are often connected with autumn. His essay Autumnal Tints is fascinating and relevant here. He associates the fall of the year and the vibrant colors of a New England autumn with a ripening of existence, a certain mellowness and stronger flavor to life, "a late and perfect maturity", "an Indian-summer serenity", an appreciation of beauty separate from usefulness, the commencing of "a more independent and individual existence".

One of my favorite quotes from Walden is this:

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

I'm starting to think of those four virtues as intimately associated with the four seasons.

As hinted in Autumnal Tints, in the time of one's late and perfect maturity one begins to lead a spiritually more "independent and individual existence"—to grow above and beyond the societal soil in which one was planted—to reflect upon one's experience and through that reflection to become more self-reliant. Thus fall is most closely associated in Thoreau's philosophy with independence.

Summer, by contrast, is a season in which we "are all for action"—a time of high flourishing, great-hearted ambition, riotous growth, fast progress, overflowing life—in a word, with magnanimity in its original sense of greatness of soul or enhanced liveliness.

As the foundation and precursor for such flourishing, spring is a time of being planted in the soil of one's family and society, of putting roots down into that soil, of gaining strength for one's greatest growth, of achieving solidity and structure in one's identity—of hope and trust in the future. Thoreau, ever mindful of etymology, could not have been unaware that trust, truth, and tree are cognate terms whose root meaning is strength, steadfastness, loyalty, constancy, solidity.

Of winter, Thoreau observed: "The wonderful purity of nature at this season is a most pleasing fact." (A Winter Walk.) "A cold and searching wind drives away all contagion, and nothing can withstand it but what has a virtue in it, and accordingly, whatever we meet with in cold and bleak places, as the tops of mountains, we respect for a sort of sturdy innocence, a Puritan toughness. All things beside seem to be called in for shelter, and what stays out must be part of the original frame of the universe, and of such valor as God himself. It is invigorating to breathe the cleansed air. Its greater fineness and purity are visible to the eye, and we would fain stay out long and late, that the gales may sigh through us, too, as through the leafless trees, and fit us for the winter,—as if we hoped so to borrow some pure and steadfast virtue, which will stead us in all seasons." Existence is stripped to its essentials, to its simplest elements.

Thus I'm beginning to feel my way along to a motif that might animate Walking With Thoreau: four seasonal walks to Thoreau's upland farm, where spring is about trust, summer about magnanimity, fall about independence, and winter about simplicity.

All this is subject to change, of course, as I read The Maine Woods, Walden, and his monumental Journals.


Cultivating Your Higher Ground

2014-06-14

I've been reading Thoreau's letters to Harrison Blake, which are a veritable mine of philosophical insights. For the purposes of writing Walking With Thoreau, I'm especially interested so far in a fascinating vision he draws of cultivating the spiritual reaches of life (letter of May 28th, 1850):

Some absorbing employment on your higher ground,—your upland farm,—whither no cart-path leads, but where you mount alone with your hoe,—where the life everlasting grows; there you raise a crop which needs not to be brought down into the valley to a market; which you barter for heavenly products.

Thoreau returned to the same theme in his letter of July 21st, 1852:

All the world complain nowadays of a press of trivial duties and engagements, which prevents their employing themselves on some higher ground they know of; but, undoubtedly, if they were made of the right stuff to work on that higher ground, provided they were released from all those engagements, they would now at once fulfill the superior engagement, and neglect all the rest, as naturally as they breathe.

And again in his letter of February 27th, 1853:

The problem of life becomes, one cannot say by how many degrees, more complicated as our material wealth is increased,—whether that needle they tell of was a gateway or not,—since the problem is not merely nor mainly to get life for our bodies, but by this or a similar discipline to get life for our souls; by cultivating the lowland farm on right principles, that is, with this view, to turn it into an upland farm. You have so many more talents to account for. If I accomplish as much more in spiritual work as I am richer in worldly goods, then I am just as worthy, or worth just as much, as I was before, and no more. I see that, in my own case, money might be of great service to me, but probably it would not be; for the difficulty now is, that I do not improve my opportunities, and therefore I am not prepared to have my opportunities increased. Now, I warn you, if it be as you say, you have got to put on the pack of an upland farmer in good earnest the coming spring, the lowland farm being cared for; ay, you must be selecting your seeds forthwith, and doing what winter work you can; and, while others are raising potatoes and Baldwin apples for you, you must be raising apples of the Hesperides for them. (Only hear how he preaches!) No man can suspect that he is the proprietor of an upland farm,—upland in the sense that it will produce nobler crops, and better repay cultivation in the long run,—but he will be perfectly sure that he ought to cultivate it.

Perhaps I can structure Walking With Thoreau as a series of seasonal walks to Thoreau's upland farm? The idea is growing on me...


RFCs 7247 and 7248

2014-05-21

A long time ago in an Internet far, far away, there happened a series of skirmishes known as the Instant Messaging Protocol Wars, involving brave warriors from the SIP and XMPP communities. Words were exchanged, epithets were hurled, swords were drawn, hand-to-hand combat ensued at IETF meetings, and much blood was shed. All for naught - as with most wars - because the real enemy (proprietary systems) invaded vast swaths of territory in the meantime.

Eventually, the combatants realized the error of their ways and sought a peaceful resolution to their conflict. Internet-Drafts were written, terms of cooperation were discussed, a working group was formed, and formal activity commenced. Six documents have resulted from this initiative, one each for core interoperability, presence, instant messaging, one-to-one chat, groupchat, and media signaling. Today, the first two of these specifications were published as RFCs: RFC 7247 (core) and RFC 7248 (presence). The other four are wending their way through the IETF's standards process and will emerge from the fog of battle sometime later this year. Stay tuned for updates. :-)


A Thoreauvian Theme

2014-05-15

As hinted in my recent post on working through the writings of various philosophers, I think I've found an intriguing theme for the short book (Walking With Thoreau) that I aim to complete in time for the Thoreau bicentennial in 2017. The first two sentences of Thoreau's essay Walking provide a clue:

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil - to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school committee and every one of you will take care of that.

One can find a tension in Thoreau's writings and in his life between the human and the natural. (Indeed, I think most reflective people feel that tension, too.) To explore it, I'm pondering the differences between the seasons of nature (which we usually conceive of as spring, summer, fall, and winter) and the seasons of man (tangent: there's a reference in there to the Yes song "Close to the Edge"). Throughout history there have been dozens of ways of dividing up the stages of life, but one approach I'm considering right now comes from the ancient Roman writer Varro's book on agriculture: preparing (e.g., plowing), planting, cultivating, harvesting, storing what's been harvested, and bringing goods to market.

Thoreau was finely attuned to the seasons, both natural and human. He knew and rejoiced in the emergence of spring, the yearly patterns of animal life, the changing colors of autumn, even the depths of winter. Immersed as he was in a mostly agricultural society (and as one who performed his own experiment in small-scale farming at Walden Pond), he was also very much aware of the challenges of trying to work with nature for human purposes (not always successfully - in his second year at Walden a late frost killed off all his plantings). Sadly, he died at the age of 44 when, one could argue, he had only just started to harvest all the knowledge and interests he had cultivated over the previous ~15 years of thinking and living.

One aspect of both Thoreau and Nietzsche that I'm looking forward to exploring is their connection to Stoicism (perhaps occasioned, in part, by their respective health problems). Although I've read a bit of the original Stoics as well as A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine, working on Thoreau and Nietzsche gives me a good excuse to delve deeply into what Seneca, Epictetus, Musonius Rufus, and Marcus Aurelius have to say about the love of wisdom and the practice of living. Thoreau absorbed Stoicism from his readings of the ancients, and if you ask me he comes across as a serenely joyous, uniquely American Stoic for whom acting accordance with nature was not merely a philosophical doctrine but very much a way of life.

Although Thoreau is often felt to be a kind of mountain man or noble savage, in fact he favored a blending of civilization and wildness - and he has, I think, much to teach us about the balance between work and leisure, indoor pursuits and outdoor pursuits, technology and nature, society and solitude, reflection and action, theory and practice, cooperation and independence, complexity and simplicity, the human and the natural. You or I might not place the balance point where he did on all those dimensions, but walking with Thoreau will certainly get each of us thinking about where it belongs.


RFC 7259

2014-05-15

Many years ago, I proposed a "Jabber-ID" email header so that you could advertise your Jabber/XMPP address in the email messages you send. Somehow it got caught up in the IETF politics of the time and was never standardized. Yet an email header doesn't need to be defined in a standards-track RFC in order to be added to IANA's provisional registry for email header field names (any old specification will do). Although draft-saintandre-jabberid existed in a lapsed state for years, it seemed better to make the document an informational RFC through the independent stream because RFCs are more stable and more referenced than stale Internet-Drafts. Thus RFC 7259. Enjoy!


Working Through

2014-05-09

Recently Keith Nerdin asked me on Twitter what I mean by saying that I "work through" an author, as I am doing now with both Nietzsche and Thoreau. Because I found it difficult to capture the entire process in 140 characters, here's a longer treatment of the subject.

As part of my lifelong philosophy project, I'm attempting to distill the wisdom of six thinkers in as brief a compass as possible. For me, this requires several phases:

  1. Read everything the author has ever written, at least once and preferably twice if I have the time. As I read, I mark up passages and phrases and even mere words of interest, usually with a red pen. (Yes, this is a bit sacreligious since I love books!)

  2. Don't revisit the author for a while, so that the ideas can seep into my subconscious.

  3. Read all of the marked-up sections again, preferably in the order in which they were written. As I do so, usually I will find some themes I can build upon. (With Rand it was thought, choice, action, and feeling as fundamental human capacities; with Epicurus it was various dyads of misperception and fear vs. dyads of clear thinking and joyful action.) To help me organize the material, I might make some marginal notes or letterings on the pages of the books about the themes I've found, perhaps keep separate lists of passages categorized by theme, etc.

  4. Here again I will let the ideas lie fallow for a time. At this stage I might also read some of the secondary literature (e.g., I did read a few books and scholarly articles about Epicurus at one point), although I try not to overdo it because I find that I can get lost in other people's interpretations (this is especially true where vast hordes of scholars have labored over the primary material, as with Aristotle and Nietzsche). Since I'm writing each movement of this "happiness suite" in a different genre (essay, dialogue, poetry, commentary, etc.), I might also read in or about the genre I'm considering.

  5. Then and only then do I start to write (although during the previous phases I might have made some jottings or outlines here and there). In a way, this is the easy part, because I've already absorbed the thinker's philosophy and have applied it a bit in my own life along the way. Thus the writing might simply grow organically out of the soil I've already cultivated.

  6. After letting what I've written lie still again for a few weeks or months, I'll then polish off the rough edges and call it done. Because I tend to be mainly happy with what I write the first time around, typically I don't make major revisions at this point.

Naturally there are variations. With Rand, I had read all of her books once or twice or more as a teenager; thus when I decided to explore a theme from The Fountainhead (which I'd read nine or ten times before college!), re-reading it once and marking it up along the way was enough to give me plenty of material that I could weave into The Tao of Roark. With Epicurus, I had read the existing translations but I didn't like them; so, inspired by my friend Manuel, I decided to translate his words afresh from Greek into English, which enabled me to know his thoughts much more deeply than if I had merely marked up someone else's rendering. With Nietzsche, I had read most of his works back in college or soon thereafter, and I have recently completed the task of re-reading them in chronological order (there are a lot of red markings in my copies, waiting to be revisited). With Thoreau, I've read Walden a few times, and I've dipped into a few of his essays as well as selections from his journals, but it's only of late that I've become systematic about absorbing what he had to say (so far the essays and poems, soon the longer books, then the journal).

Although I'm not yet sure about the key notes that I hope to strike in my books on Nietzsche and Thoreau, the emphasis as always will be on practical wisdom, not theoretical elegance or doctrinal purity. I care about ideas as they apply to life, not as ends in themselves.

That said, I'm starting to perceive the dim outlines of an intriguing theme for the book on Thoreau (which I aim to finish before the Thoreau bicentennial on July 12th, 2017). I'll post on that topic as soon as the thesis becomes a bit more clear in my own mind.


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