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 (spring, summer, fall, and winter) and what we might in old-fashioned language call 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.


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