Thoreau on Magnanimity


Reading is one thing; understanding is another. Part of what I do while "working through" the writings of a thinker like Thoreau is to delve deeply into key themes, concepts, and even words. Consider, for example, this sentence from Economy, the first chapter of Walden: "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." When reading on the surface, it's easy to gloss over a sentence like this and merely have a pleasant feeling that it's a good thing to live philosophically. Yet what exactly is Thoreau talking about here? What does he mean by the somewhat vague and uncommon word magnanimity? To figure that out can require quite a bit of digging.

If we use the word magnanimity today, we usually mean something like generosity. And that usage does occur in Thoreau, such as in this Journal entry from March 27, 1841 (this and other Journal entries related to my forthcoming book The Upland Farm will be published at the same time in a collection entitled Seasons of Thoreau):

Magnanimity, though it look expensive for a short course, is always economy in the long run. Be generous in your poverty, if you would be rich. To make up a great action there are no subordinate mean ones. We can never afford to postpone a true life today to any future and anticipated nobleness. We think if by a tight economy we can manage to arrive at independence, then indeed we will begin to be generous without stay. We sacrifice all nobleness to a little present meanness. If a man charges you eight hundred pay him eight hundred and fifty, and it will leave a clean edge to the sum. It will be like nature, overflowing and rounded like the bank of a river, not close and precise like a drain or ditch.

Different meanings abound, however. Consider this paragraph from The Bean-Field, chapter 7 of Walden:

We are wont to forget that the sun looks on our cultivated fields and on the prairies and forests without distinction. They all reflect and absorb his rays alike, and the former make but a small part of the glorious picture which he beholds in his daily course. In his view the earth is all equally cultivated like a garden. Therefore we should receive the benefit of his light and heat with a corresponding trust and magnanimity. What though I value the seed of these beans, and harvest that in the fall of the year? This broad field which I have looked at so long looks not to me as the principal cultivator, but away from me to influences more genial to it, which water and make it green. These beans have results which are not harvested by me. Do they not grow for woodchucks partly? The ear of wheat (in Latin spica, obsoletely speca, from spe, hope) should not be the only hope of the husbandman; its kernel or grain (granum from gerendo, bearing) is not all that it bears. How, then, can our harvest fail? Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds? It matters little comparatively whether the fields fill the farmer's barns. The true husbandman will cease from anxiety, as the squirrels manifest no concern whether the woods will bear chestnuts this year or not, and finish his labor with every day, relinquishing all claim to the produce of his fields, and sacrificing in his mind not only his first but his last fruits also.

Here, Thoreau seems to be talking about something like acceptance of natural events (if the rains don't fall on my crops, perhaps it's good for the weeds that feed the birds; if I lose some bean-plants to vermin, at least the woodchucks are thriving). Exactly how is this a kind of magnanimity?

Well, by reading what Stoic philosophers like Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus have to say about magnanimity, we can see a connection to a more ancient conception. In Book X, Chapter 8 of the Meditations, Aurelius writes:

Magnanimity is the elevation of the intelligent part above the pleasurable or painful sensations of the flesh, and above that poor thing called fame, and death, and all such things.

And in Book II, Chapter 5 of the Discourses, Epictetus addresses the question "How are magnanimity and carefulness compatible?" (this is the translation of W.A. Oldfather in the Loeb Classical Library):

Materials are indifferent, but the use which we make of them is not a matter of indifference. How, therefore, shall a man maintain steadfastness and peace of mind, and at the same time the careful spirit and that which is neither reckless nor negligent?

Looking at the Greek, as Thoreau might have done, we find that Epictetus essentially describes μεγαλοψυχία (magnanimity or greatness of soul) as a combination of εὐςτάθεια (steadiness or stability) and άταραξία (tranquility or serenity). So another, Stoic sense of magnanimity is handling the circumstances of life with steadiness and serenity - as Kipling put it, to "keep your head when all about you are losing theirs". Indeed, even magnanimity as generosity might well have Stoic roots, because if you are giving with your wealth (not that Thoreau had much wealth because of his life of voluntary simplicity!) then you are placing appropriate value on things that the Stoic philosophers considered to be "indifferent".

Yet there's more. Going back even further than the Stoics brings us to Aristotle, who devoted Book IV, Chapter 3 of the Nicomachean Ethics to μεγαλοψυχία. For Aristotle, greatness of soul was a matter of simultaneously being ethically beautiful while having an accurate sense of self-worth; such a person would not take external goods like wealth or fame seriously, and thus would not be overjoyed when experiencing good fortune nor overly distressed when experiencing bad fortune. This, too, sounds similar to the Stoic conception.

Thoreau often uses the phrase "grandeur of soul" or simply "grandeur" when speaking of ethical beauty. Consider a few representative passages. First, a Journal entry from November 16, 1858:

It would be a relief to breathe one's self occasionally among men. If there were any magnanimity in us, any grandeur of soul, anything but sects and parties undertaking to patronize God and keep the mind within bounds, how often we might encourage and provoke one another by a free expression!

In the last paragraph of "A Walk to Wachusett", he makes a connection between the mountain grandeur of the uplands and the higher pursuits of your lowland life:

And now that we have returned to the desultory life of the plain, let us endeavor to import a little of that mountain grandeur into it. We will remember within what walls we lie, and understand that this level life too has its summit, and why from the mountain-top the deepest valleys have a tinge of blue; that there is elevation in every hour, as no part of the earth is so low that the heavens may not be seen from, and we have only to stand on the summit of our hour to command an uninterrupted horizon.

In several places, Thoreau writes about "the grandeur of our destiny", with the implicit exhortation to live up to that promise. Here is a Journal entry from January 13, 1857:

I hear one thrumming a guitar below stairs. It reminds me of moments that I have lived. What a comment upon our life is the least strain of music! It lifts me above the mire and dust of the universe. I soar or hover with clean skirts over a field of my life. It is ever life within life, in concentric spheres. The field wherein I toil or rust at any time is at the same time the field for such different kinds of life! The farmer's boy or hired man has an instinct which tells him as much indistinctly, and hence his dreams and his restlessness; hence, even, it is that he wants money to realize his dreams with. The identical field where I am leading my humdrum life, let but a strain of music be heard there, is seen to be the field of some unrecorded crusade or tournament the thought of which excites in us an ecstasy of joy. The way in which I am affected by this faint thrumming advertises me that there is still some health and immortality in the springs of me. What an elixir is sound! I, who but lately came and went and lived under a dish cover, live now under the heavens. It releases me; it bursts my bonds. Almost all, perhaps all, our life is, speaking comparatively, a stereotyped despair; i.e., we never at any time realize the full grandeur of our destiny. We forever and ever and habitually underrate our fate.

In a longer paragraph from a Journal entry of March 31, 1852, Thoreau connects "the prospect of the grandeur of our destiny" with the life of nature, and pointedly with not being indifferent to that life:

It would be worth the while to tell why a swamp pleases us, what kinds please us, also what weather, etc., etc. — analyze our impressions. Why the moaning of the storm gives me pleasure. Methinks it is because it puts to rout the trivialness of our fair-weather life and gives it at least a tragic interest. The sound has the effect of a pleasing challenge, to call forth our energy to resist the invaders of our life's territory. It is musical and thrilling, as the sound of an enemy's bugle. Our spirits revive like lichens in the storm. There is something worth living for when we are resisted, threatened. As at the last day we might be thrilled with the prospect of the grandeur of our destiny, so in these first days our destiny appears grander. What would the days, what would our life, be worth, if some nights were not dark as pitch — of darkness tangible or that you can cut with a knife? How else could the light in the mind shine? How should we be conscious of the light of reason? If it were not for physical cold, how should we have discovered the warmth of the affections? I sometimes feel that I need to sit in a far-away cave through a three weeks' storm, cold and wet, to give a tone to my system. The spring has its windy March to usher it in, with many soaking rains reaching into April. Methinks I would share every creature's suffering for the sake of its experience and joy. The song sparrow and transient fox-colored sparrow — have they brought me no message this year? Do they go to lead heroic lives in Rupert's Land? They are so small, I think their destinies must be large. Have I heard what this tiny passenger has to say, while it flits thus from tree to tree? Is not the coming of the fox-colored sparrow something more earnest and significant than I have dreamed of? Can I forgive myself if I let it go to Rupert's Land before I have appreciated it? God did not make this world in jest; no, nor in indifference. These migrating sparrows all bear messages that concern my life. I do not pluck the fruits in their season. I love the birds and beasts because they are mythologically in earnest. I see that the sparrow cheeps and flits and sings adequately to the great design of the universe; that man does not communicate with it, understand its language, because he is not at one with nature. I reproach myself because I have regarded with indifference the passage of the birds; I have thought them no better than I.

This brings us back to the Stoics. Yet Thoreau does them one better: whereas they advocated living in deep accordance with nature, Thoreau advocated living in the very midst of nature. This is why most days he spent the afternoon exploring the woods and streams of Concord, studying the birds and fish and animals and plants and trees of his native environment. For Thoreau, it was by immersing himself in nature and by coming to know its endless variety that he aligned himself with his own higher nature.

Even this is not all that Thoreau has to say about magnanimity - he associates it with noble ambition, earnestness, integrity, courage, flourishing, and personal growth; with being great hearted and high minded; with truthfulness of character; with achieving the great hopes and expectations of your youth; with the exercise of the highest human faculties; with making your life worthy of the contemplation of your most elevated and critical hour; and with much else besides.

Reading is one thing; understanding is another; writing is yet a third. Although it's clear that I could write a treatise on Thoreau, the goal of my lifelong philosophy project is to write six short books of 60 pages or less so that they can be read in an hour or two. Indeed, the first draft of The Upland Farm has only ten thousand words (about one for every page that Thoreau wrote!), whereas this journal entry about a single concept is over two thousand words all by itself. So as is my wont I will need to figure out how to incorporate some of these insights in an extremely condensed form.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal