Henry David Thoreau

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Henry David Thoreau (b. July 12, 1817 – d. May 6, 1862) was an American writer, naturalist, and philosopher of the Transcendentalist movement. Thoreau was considered to have an incredibly progressive mind for his day, and his work has inspired Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and many others across the world.

Biography

Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts to John and Cynthia Thoreau. Thoreau had always felt an innate truth in nature, as claimed his first memory was "looking through the stars to see if I could see God behind them"[1] Trusting far more in nature than in society, he enrolled at Havard College in 1833, where his wit and defiance carried him to his graduation in 1837.

After graduation, Thoreau went to teach at the Concord Public School, but left two weeks later after a discrepancy with the superintendent on the use of student discipline. He then joined his brother John to start their own school, the Concord Academy, that emphasized learning beyond the classroom through field trips and natural walks. In 1842, John passed away and Thoreau was forced to close the school. Shortly after his death, longtime neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson invited Thoreau to work for him as a handyman. During the two years he worked for Emerson, Thoreau gained extensive exposure to the ideas of Transcendentalism.

Through Emerson's encouragement, Thoreau began to write and publish his works in the Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial. In his early writings he explored the complexity and vastness of nature, which lead him to believe that life could be easily understood in the wilderness. This inspired to buy a plot of land from Emerson at Walden Pond to achiveve a higher understanding of nature. From July 4th, 1845 to September 6th, 1847, Thoreau's lived the message that "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."[2] His journals from his experiment of simple living became the famous book, Walden; or Life in the Woods.

After returning from Walden Pond, Thoreau returned to Concord with an even stronger defiance of society. He refused to pay local taxes to support the Mexican American War, which he consequently spent a night in jail for punishment. This inspired the essay, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Thoreau also became largely outspoken about slavery and abolition, for which he gave the lecture, A Plea for Captain John Brown, in 1859. During the course of the Civil War, Thoreau began to publish his journals, but soon fell deathly ill to tuberculosis in the spring of 1862. In his last moments, he stated his final phrase, "Now comes good sailing."

Concepts and Influences

  • Environmentalism: In regards to Nature, Thoreau thought that it was a place to restore the soul. As he once stated, "In wilderness is the preservation of the world".[3] Furthermore, Thoreau also encouraged others to conserve nature for future generations, as he equates that "As in many countries precious metals belong to the crown, so here more precious natural objects of rare beauty should belong to the public".[4]
  • Civil Disobedience: In response to social injustices of his era, Thoreau 's main response to government became, "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison".[5] As a man must peacefully protest for a government in which higher principles can be recognized, Thoreau finds it hard to believe that such a state can be achieved under strict jurisdiction. In order to have a society of Freedom and Will, Thoreau states, "I heartilly accept the motto, — 'That government is best which governs least'; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically".[6]
  • Simplicity: In all of life's affairs, Thoreau believed in simplicity to truly understand life and its meaning. As he stated in Walden, the course of action to take is "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand ... Simplify, simplify".[7] Thoreau further notes that simplifying one's lifestyle is another form to distinguish higher truth. In a letter to H. G. O. Blake, Thoreau wrote, "So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run".[8]
  • Conformity and Independence: It was Thoreau who first stated that "The mass of men lead quiet lives of desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation".[9] By conforming to society and finance, Thoreau believed that people had lost their will and purpose. In response to this, Thoreau states that every man should listen to his own self, as reflect in Walden, "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away".[10]

Thoreau and Theosophy

H. P. Blavatsky mentions and comments on Thoreau's knowlege of beings of higher consciousness. Both Blavatsky and Thoreau understand that higher beings can alter the very enviornment in which they inhabit, and thus completely change the mood of everything they encounter. Blavatsky remarks upon this in her Collected Writings:

Thoreau pointed out that there are artists in life, persons who can change the colour of a day and make it beautiful to those with whom they come in contact. We claim that there are adepts, masters in life who make it divine, as in all other arts. Is it not the greatest art of all, this which affects the very atmosphere in which we live? That it is the most important is seen at once, when we remember that every person who draws the breath of life affects the mental and moral atmosphere of the world, and helps to colour the day for those about him.[11]

It is also noted that Thoreau had a significant Eastern influence as well. From Henry David Thoreau's years serving as Ralph Waldo Emerson's handyman, Thoreau was encouraged to read Eastern texts by Emerson's guidance. As Alvin Boyd Kuhn remarks:

We know that Thoreau became the recipient of

forty-four volumes of the Hindu texts in 1854; but it is evident that he, like Emerson, had had contact with Brahmanical literature previous to that. His works are replete with references to Eastern ideas and beliefs. He could hardly have associated so closely with Emerson as he did and

escaped the contagion of the latter's Oriental enthusiasm.[12]

Selected Essays and Books

  • Walden Pond (1845): Thoreau's two year journal of his life at Walden Pond, which included individual essays such as Economy, Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, Solitude, and Higher Laws
  • Civil Disobedience (1849): Thoreau's essay on passive resistance to civil law, which was written in response to his night spent in jail.
  • Travel Logs (1840s-1850s): Thoreau's detailed accounts of his journeys in the Northeast. He published his ventures in the books The Maine Woods, Cape Cod, and A Yankee in Canada.
  • Societal Discourse Essays (1854-1859): Thoreau's essays serving as a counterpoint against mainstream society, as seen in Life Without Principle, Slavery in Massachusetts, and A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  • Walking (1862): One of Thoreau's final works, which stressed the importance and value of nature for past, present, and future generations.[13]

Notes

  1. Thoreau's Early Life at American Transcendentalism
  2. Thoreau, Henry David. Walden (Köln : Könemann, 1996), 82.
  3. Thoreau on the Wilderness at The Walden Woods Project
  4. Thoreau on Enviornmentalism at Walden Woods Project
  5. Online Text of Civil Disobedience at The Thoreau Reader
  6. Online Text of Civil Disobedience at The Thoreau Reader
  7. Thoreau, Henry David. Walden (Köln : Könemann, 1996), 83.
  8. Thoreau on Simplicity at the Walden Woods Project
  9. Thoreau, Henry David. Walden (Köln : Könemann, 1996), 11.
  10. Thoreau, Henry David. Walden (Köln : Könemann, 1996), 285.
  11. Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna. Collected Writings vol. IX (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 3.
  12. Kuhn, Alvin Boyd. Theosophy: A Modern Revival of Ancient Wisdom (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1930), ???.
  13. Online Texts of Thoreau at The Thoreau Reader