The Legacy of Henry David Thoreau 200 Years After His Birth

thoreau 220xHow does what Thoreau wrote influence or relate to UU beliefs and practices today? Walden was and is his most popular book. Does it have anything for today’s reader? Thoreau considered himself a Transcendentalist, rather than a Unitarian.  But where do those beliefs fit in today’s world? His essay “Civil Disobedience” influenced Ghandi and Marin Luther King. How does it sound today in the era of Trump?  Let’s take a look at one of Unitarian Universalism most well-known philosophers. Service leader is David Stevens.


Born 200 years ago in Concord MA Henry David Thoreau has long been seen as a forefather of modern  Unitarian beliefs and ideals. But though his family were regular Unitarian members and as a youth Henry was baptized a Unitarian and attended Unitarian services, after graduating from Harvard Henry dropped out of the church. He decided to follow the lead of Ralph Waldo Emerson and saw himself as a Transcendentalist.


Though Transendentalism was quite radical in the early 1800’s many of its core beliefs seem almost mainstream among present day UU’s. Transcendentalists believed that humans are inherently good and God is to be found in all life forms. People find wisdom through self direction and personal independence without relying on dogma or external institutions. Religion is neither beliefs nor rituals, it is life. The goal is the blossoming of self-culture by learning and being open to change. Another goal is  to find one’s own inner genius. The direction you were meant to proceed through life. By studying nature one can find the spirituality within oneself as well as the harmony between self and the cosmos. Thoreau committed himself to these beliefs, the study of nature and his relationship to it.


After college Thoreau  was hired to teach school in Concord, but he didn’t last long. He resigned after one week because  one of his supervisors insisted on the use of corporal punisment.  Also the most common method of teaching at that time was rote memorization. Thoreau’s take on rote learning.  “What does education do? It makes a straight cut  ditch of a free meandering brook”. For him the most lasting form of education was based on experience. A year later Henry and his brother John formed their own school using their own beliefs on education and discipline as guides. They were successful until John’s ill health made it impossible to continue. John died of a Tetanus infection at age 26 in 1842.


Throughout his life Thoreau did a variety of work to supplement the modest amount he made through writing and lecturing. His family owned a pencil factory where Henry often helped out with new designs for equipment and formulas for the graphite that went into the pencils. He also worked as a handy man and surveyor. The latter was his main source of income in the later years of his life.


Though Thoreau traveled little outside of New England, he was an avid reader of science, philospohy and the travel adventures of others. Alexander Von Humbodlt and Darwin added to the knowledge of nature that he gained from observation. Wisdom of eastern religions expressed in such classic works as the Bhagavad Gita and Confucius also influenced his thinking and writing.


Walden is Thoreau’s best known book. There are a number of misconceptions about his endeavor to build a cabin and live in the woods. The venture wasn’t a hippy style move to the country to live off the land. It was designed to give him an isolated place to write, think and study nature close at hand. Its location wasn’t far from Concord so he had many visitors while living there- friends and just curious towns people. He continued to go to town on occasion to do odd jobs for income and have Sunday meals with his family. He did have an extensive vegetable garden featuring beans which he grew to sell so to a certain extent he was living off the land.


His 2 year stay at Walden gave him a chance to observe nature every day, take extended walks, write in a journal and begin work on a book  titled A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. This was written as a tribute to his brother John. The theme of the book recalls a 2 week trip they took together around which he weaves philosophy and observations of life and society. From his journal Thoreau would later write Walden which he didn’t complete till 1854, 7 years after he left his cabin.


Thoreau felt poetry was the most expressive way to convey the depth of ones understanding and feelings. Though he wrote little poetry Thoreau’s prose is filled with poetic allusions and verse. Here are a few passages which illustrate this. The first describes one priority for his stay at Walden- having the freedom to be spontaneous in the way he spent his day.


“There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hand. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes on a sunny morning I sat in my doorway from sunrise till noon amidst the pines and the hickories and sumacs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while birds sang around or flitted noiselessly through the house… I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hand would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above the usual allowance. I realized what the orientals mean by contemplation and forsaking of works.”


A basic tenent for Thoreau was simplicity. Focus on what is most important in your life and don’t bother with the superfluous. The phrase Time is Money is the antithesis of what Thoreau believed. For him Money is Time. The time spent making money for things that were beyond what he needed was time lost for doing what he wanted to do. “I love a broad margin to my life” Being able to sit quietly and observe nature was what he got from having broad margins in his life.


Another key practise for Thoreau was being focused on what he was doing. There is only the present. It is the only place where one exists.


“In any weather, at any hour of the  day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand at the meeting of two eternities, the past and the future which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.”


Thoreau sought and found solitude and time to study at Walden but he found that when friends came there to sit and talk there was more depth to their conversations than when they would meet back in Concord. Conversation was an important means of working on ideas.


“Having each some shingles of thought well dried, we sat and whittled them, trying our knives, and admiring the clear yellowish grain of pumpkin pine. We waded so gently and reverently or we pulled together so smoothly, that the fishes of thought were not scared from the stream, nor feared any angler on the bank, but came and went grandly like the clouds which float through the western sky, and the mother of pearl flocks which sometimes form and dissolve there.There we worked, revising mythology, rounding a fable here and there, and building castles in the air for which the earth offered no worthy foundation. Great Looker, Great Expecter, to converse with whom was a New England Night’s Entertainment.”


Besides Walden Thoreau’s best known literary work is the essay “Civil Disobedience” It was written in reaction to the War with Mexico which Thoreau saw as an act of unjustified agression. The essay expresses the belief that a citizen must disavow the unjust acts of his or her government or be complicit. Merely voting and accepting the results of the majority is not enough if the actions  taken by the majority are  immoral.


At one point Thoreau contrasts the grievances which lead to the American revolution with the immorality of the policies of the present government. “ All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to and resist the government, when its tyrrany or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is not the case now. But such was the case, they think, in the Revolution of ’75’. If one were to tell me that this was a bad government because it taxed certain foreign commodities brought to its ports, it is most probable that I should not make much ado about it, for I can do without them.”  For Thoreau such offenses were minor compared to the offenses of the present government. “In other words when a sixth of the population, of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty, are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conguered  by a foreign army and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.”


This essay was published and received widespread approval. Later many political leaders would cite this essay as an inspiration. Ghandi wrote Thoreau was ‘one of the greatest and most moral men America has produced’. “Thoreau’s] ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all of my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian Independence. Why I actually took the name of my movement from Thoreau’s essay ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience’, written about 80 years ago”


Andrea Wulf writing in the current- Nov. issue of the Atlantic feels that Thoreau’s greatest work began in 1849 2 years after leaving Walden. His study of nature became more systematic and regular. He took long daily walks collecting specimens of plants, watching birds, noting the changes of seasons such as when certain plants blossomed. He wrote daily in a journal which eventually amassed 2 million words of observations and thoughts on what he saw.


In doing so Thoreau was following the example of Alexander Von Humbolt whose  3 books Cosmos, Views of Nature and Personal Narrative he had studied closely.Thoreau tried to maintain a balance between his scientific observations and his poetic love for the natural world he was studying. Wulf writes “For Thoreau, a sense of wonder- of awe toward, but also a oneness, with nature was essential. We will, he understood, protect only what we love.” While most of us know the reality of climate change and the destruction of habitat that is leading to significant species loss it seems that few of us are willing to make the sort of changes in our lives that will slow or end this destruction. Maybe it is because we don’t really know and love the natural world enough.


Thoreau’s relevance to the Unitarian Universalist principles comes from both his writing and the activism of his life. He and his family were dedicaded abolitionists, at times harboring slaves as they made their way to Canada which after the Fugitive Slave Act was the only place where run away slaves were truly safe.


His reverence for nature lead him to advocate for public lands where people could experience nature. This idea of public parks has been followed by towns throughout the country  and later the idea was carried further by others with the creation of state and national parks. Thoreau in his lifetime also helped local farmers replant forests that had been logged leading to erosion. Surprisingly it took someone like Thoreau who had studied the cycles of nature to realize that reforestation depended on the planting of accorns and other seeds from the types of trees they desired. Even well known scientists of his day still believed in Spontaneous generation.


Thoeau died of Tuberculosis at age 44. A memorial was held at the Concord town hall and classes were dismissed early so that the children of Concord could take part in the service. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a long time friend and early mentor was one of many who spoke. Emerson’s eulogy is many pages long and can be found online in the archives of the Atlantic Monthly magazine. As an aside, the magazine was founded by 8 New Englanders including Emerson and is 160 years old this year. Here are a few passages from his eulogy of Thoreau.


It was a pleasure and a privilege to walk with him. He knew the country like a fox or a bird, and passed through it as freely,by paths of his own. He knew every track in the snow or on the ground, and what creature had taken this path before him. One must submit abjectly to such a guide, and the reward was great.

His robust common sense, armed with stout hands, keen perceptions, and strong will, cannot yet account for the superiority which shone in his simple and hidden life. I must add the cardinal fact, that there was an excellent wisdom in him, proper to a rare class of men, which showed him the material world as a means and symbol.


Thoreau was sincerity itself, and might fortify the convictions of prophets in the ethical laws by his holy living. It was an affirmative experience which refused to be set aside. A truth-speaker he, capable of the most deep and strict conversation; a physician to the wounds of any soul; a friend, knowing not only the secret of friendship, but almost worshipped by those few persons who resorted to him as their confessor and prophet, and knew the deep value of his mind and great heart. He thought that without religion or devotion of some kind nothing great was ever accomplished.


A concluding section of the eulogy not included in sermon:

The scale on which his studies proceeded was so large as to require longevity, and we were the less prepared for his sudden disappearance. The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. It seems an injury that he should leave in the midst his broken task, which none else can finish,—a kind of indignity to so noble a soul, that it should depart out of Nature before yet he has been really shown to his peers for what he is. But he, at least, is content. His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.

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