A Book on Thoreau

It is a pleasure to be known, to be acknowledged, and when the space of acknowledgment is broadly public rather than private and personal, there is added gratification. Thus I feel both humbled and buoyed by a review essay by a colleague in philosophy who gives a generous, and to my (far from disinterested) ear, sensitive and discerning account of a project that absorbed several years of my writing life, Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion [Bloomsbury, 2015, 274pp.]

The review that follows is by Stanley Bates, Middlebury College, and appears in the most recent Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

This is, from my point of view, a delightful book. It consists of 15 chapters, 12 of which are “heavily revised” versions of previously published essays, and three brief closing sections. It is addressed to those who are at least somewhat familiar with the work of Thoreau, and who will take seriously the idea that his work is relevant to philosophy. The philosopher who is most responsible for the existence of such readers is, of course, Stanley Cavell, and Cavell is a continuing background to, and inspiration for, Edward F. Mooney’s work. However, his focus is somewhat different. Cavell concentrated on Walden in his The Senses of Walden, because he found it to have been dramatically underread. Mooney refers to, and occasionally quotes from, Walden, but he attempts to cultivate a more intimate relationship with Thoreau, and to understand Thoreau’s own way of life, or, perhaps better, the phenomenology of Thoreau’s being-in-the-world, against the background of Thoreau’s commitment to the idea of philosophy as a way of life. Mooney, therefore, draws more on A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and on Thoreau’s essays, journals and letters, as well as Walden. In all of these writings, Thoreau’s personality (or, perhaps, persona) is self-consciously to the fore. Thoreau is not however intentionally providing an autobiography, and a reader of Mooney’s book would be helped by some familiarity with Thoreau’s biography. Because Mooney’s book collects, and revises, essays, he does not attempt to provide a full biographical and historical account of Thoreau’s life.

Mooney is not just interested in explicating Thoreau. The title, Excursions with Thoreau, is meant more seriously. The essays attempt not only to show us Thoreau’s way of living, (or, what I called above, his being-in-the-world) but, to some degree, to initiate Mooney himself, and his readers, into that way of life. He wants his readers to see what he sees in Thoreau’s writing, and to be affected by it in the way Mooney himself has been. Of course, this fits exactly with the tradition of “philosophy as a way of life” that Thoreau both preaches and exemplifies. Thoreau in the works discussed, not only provides a number of descriptions of his encounters with the natural world including his human encounters; he also provides a kind of phenomenology of the moods that these encounters evoke. Mooney masterfully characterizes the complexity (and sometimes contradiction) that structure these ways of being in the world. Thoreau gives accounts of the beauty and terror of natural scenes, of the celebration and the mourning that are part of our existence. He is both happy in the world, and so revolted by the reality of slavery that the world can seem utterly disgusting (though that mood is redeemed in the text by an encounter with a flower).

What may be the biggest problem of the structure of this book may also be its greatest strength. As I wrote above, the chapters are revisions of earlier papers written on different occasions for different journals and books. This means that not only are the major themes of the author’s reading of Thoreau present in most of the essays, but even the same passages and quotations are visited pretty frequently. One is reminded of Wittgenstein’s remark, in the preface to the Philosophical Investigations, in which he compares his (lack of) method to “sketches of landscapes.” He continues, “The same or almost the same points were always being approached afresh from different directions, and new sketches made.” If one reads the book from start to finish, one is struck by this sense of seeing the same issues from different points of view. Some of the events of Thoreau’s life have a particularly central role in influencing Mooney’s reading of him. The death of his brother John, and the death of Waldo Emerson, which occurred near in time, were shattering instances of human mortality for Thoreau. His attempt to recover something of the remains of Margaret Fuller after her drowning, and his description of that attempt, seem revelatory to Mooney. Thoreau’s experience of desolation at the top of Mount Katahdin is a crucial moment that Mooney cites in considering the complexity of Thoreau’s account of his response to the world. The combination of mourning and celebration in his writing are understood relative to those events. In these cases, Thoreau’s writing about the events demands serious interpretive study, and Mooney provides close readings of his carefully constructed sentences.

Another central occurrence in Thoreau’s life was his meeting with John Brown. Thoreau wrote about Brown’s capture at Harper’s Ferry and his subsequent hanging in two lectures/essays. Brown’s character is, of course, one of the most contested topics in American history. He is often, now, portrayed as a murderous fanatic. Thoreau would have none of that. It is useful to be reminded that abolitionists like Thoreau and Emerson could regard the United States constitution as a contract with absolute evil. They regarded the great constitutional compromise on slavery as what we would now call a crime against humanity. Were they wrong? Surely not. Until the abolition of slavery during and after the Civil War, the United States permitted one of the most radically unjust systems in human history — racially-based chattel slavery. Mooney explicates Thoreau’s understanding of Brown beautifully — most memorably his claim that Brown had not died at his hanging. Thoreau, of course, wrote strikingly on the limits of our duty to the state. Indeed, this may have been his most influential writing because of its impact on Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.. Thoreau is often mocked because of his willingness to spend one night in jail (until Emerson got him out) as though this limited punishment undercuts his account of the limits of political obligation. Mooney will have none of such mockery.

I’ll briefly comment on one more aspect of Mooney’s reading of Thoreau. This like several other themes runs through several essays. He interprets Thoreau as a thinker who is, in a broad sense, a part of Romanticism. (This is no surprise since American Transcendentalism is usually thought of as a part of the broad current of Romanticism.) This bears on the relationship of Romanticism to modern science. The great Romantic thinkers are often thought of as hostile to science. (This is, in fact, false. Richard Holmes has written a marvelous book about Romanticism and science.[1]) However, what was being resisted was a kind of scientism that had been erected on the foundation of an 18th century materialism (derived from ancient atomism) and the overpowering example of Newtonian physics. This scientism was held to entail what has been called the disenchantment of the world. The central theme of Romanticism, in philosophy and poetry, is a refusal of this disenchantment.[2] Mooney sees Thoreau with his commitment to the observation of the natural world as both grounded in science, and as resisting scientism. This seems fair to me. Moreover, Mooney in several passages, particularly in the essay “Grounding Poetry” relates this to current debates and concerns about the value of the humanities in the university curriculum. He argues that it is a stunted conception of knowledge that would deny the reality of what Thoreau calls “Sympathy with Intelligence.” Mooney goes on, “Our highest most fulfilling attunement to the world comes when we are alert for local ‘Intelligence,’ as radiant things give radiant news of love, dread, grief, or delight — from this alder or that rock, or from this grand vista.”[3] Mooney is clear that Thoreau does not hold the view (which he calls hyper-Romantic) that science somehow kills poetry or is incompatible with it — but science (or scientific knowing) is not our basic way of being-in-the-world. This account of Thoreau runs through all of Mooney’s readings and, one hopes, might bring his readers back to Thoreau’s writings. I’ll let Mooney have the final word here on the kind of writing that he finds in Thoreau.

The writing articulates life at once philosophical, religious, literary-poetic. It is a life of walking, seeing, tasting, hearing in imagination-drenched immersions. We sense a way of taking up with the world and of being happy to be of it. Yet seeking life and serenity can miserably fail. Will the emphasis fall on despair or exaltation, on confidence or self-doubt, on loss or return? Reality is difficult and gives us reasons for both . . . Thoreau is startled into life and delight and invites us along.[4]

[1] Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Wonder and Terror of Science. (Pantheon Books, 2008)

[2] For elaboration, see Stanley Bates, “Refusing Disenchantment: Romanticism, Criticism, Philosophy, Philosophy and Literature, (Vol. 40, No. 2, October 2016)

[3] Mooney, p. 220

[4] ibid., p. 198

The Gentle Transformations of Snow

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Of course the near-landscape is transformed: parked cars morph into snow-banks, streets and sidewalks are conjoined, one walks in one as well as in the other. The view to blue water is set off by billows and borders of white. As flakes drift steadily down, no matter which way you look, all lines between earth and sky are dissolved.

Inhabitants seem cheered by it all. One, dusting off his car, says cheerily, “Another day in paradise.” A septuagenarian sipping coffee as I wait in line says, “I kicked snow all the way here.” She was gently transformed. For an hour or so, she would be a kid.

As I waited to order a middle aged bundled woman said to no one in particular, “Oh, I forgot my wallet, I’ll be back in a minute.” But she had just trudged through cold and snow to arrive, and however happily in snow, just then coffee was on her mind. Although she was a stranger, I said without losing a beat, “Let me buy you one.” She was surprised, I was surprised, and I attribute any generosity in the air to the snow in the air. We exchanged names and chatted about dogs and snow.

As I returned, coffee in hand, to my flat, oblivious whether I was walking on streets or sidewalks or space in between, without exception people called out from under their muffling caps and scarfs (it was 10 degrees Fahrenheit). We hailed each other as friendly wayfarers in the gentle, slightly windswept whiteness. The snow had lightened our spirits and brought in good cheer.

winter-2001778__480

Everywhere, it invited quiet and rest and welcome.

An Experiment with News

As some of you know from a previous post on the menace of news, I’ve been struggling with a dilemma: I find it nearly impossible not to read the news. Yet I don’t like the bitter taste it leaves. In an attempt at self-preservation, I started a small file of worthy bits of resistance that left me hopeful and heartened rather than despairing.

Here are selections from my file perhaps of interest to those who remember that Thoreau followed political news carefully even as he confessed on Mt Greylock that the advertisements were more interesting than the news. In “Slavery in Massachusetts” he says the news has made it impossible to delight in his daily walks.

Disclaimer: obviously I’m cheering on the sometimes quiet resisters in our midst, and trying to counter my own doldrums and outrage. The following items are ‘cherry picked,’  and in an attempt to minimize clutter I’ve not cited sources, though I confess, I’m addicted to daily reading in NYTimes, Washington Post, and Boston Globe.

In no particular order of importance, and just from this week:

**At least three members of the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots have said they will not visit the White House for the traditional meeting that championship teams have with the president.

**Some critics are calling on cable news outlets to bar Kelleyanne Conway from appearing on air, and CNN declined to have her on as a guest Sunday.

**with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, Trump said that “maybe it’ll take till sometime into next year” for his administration to unveil a new health-care plan. It is, the president said, “very complicated.”

**Nordstrom, Trump’s latest Twitter target, seems largely immune to the president’s public bashing. He criticized the retailer for dropping Ivanka Trump products — and its stock value climbed.

**Ivanka’s clothing line removed from prominence at T J Maxx and Marshals [Nordstrom has already dropped her]

** Trump’s Supreme Court nominee called Trump’s attacks on the independent judiciary “demoralizing” and “disheartening.” (Trump found the judges had failed to grasp concepts even “a bad high school student would understand.”

**Silencing Warren has given her a boost nationally.

The first of a predicted 14 inches of snow falls silently outside . . .

Leaving this world

What is a transcendental experience?

I stood there in my filthy Birkenstocks feeling a sense of religious transcendental soaring: the promise that my true self was not bound by the constraints of my childhood

— by freeway exits, office parks, after-school programs, coin-operated laundry rooms at dingy apartment complexes, vineyards plowed under and converted into Walmarts, instability, change, dead dogs, divorce.

No.

The David suggested that my true self existed most fully in some interstellar superhistorical realm in which all the ideal things of the universe commingled in a perpetual ecstasy of harmonizing trumpet blasts.

If such perfection could exist in the world, I felt, then so many other things were suddenly possible: to live a perfect life creating perfect things, to find an ideal way to be. What was the point of anything less?

 

Then there’s a very slight let down:

 

21mag-ankles5-superjumbo

and another:

 

21mag-21ankles-t_ca0-superjumbo

 

quotes and photos are from Sam Anderson,  Michelangelo’s David

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/21/magazine/davids-ankles-how-imperfections-could-bring-down-the-worlds-most-perfect-statue.html?emc=edit_ty_20170208&nl=opinion-today&nlid=58629421&te=1&_r=0

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Why Teach Humanities?

I teach a religion class that requires weekly “check-ins,” short responses to some passage in the reading assigned. This Spring students have just finished reading Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk. 

Here is a response that confirms my sense that great (and even minor) humanities texts can carry unexpected riches, can probe the soul in ways no one can foresee.

It also illustrates how the genesis of a powerful insight can be shrouded in mist and confusion and unclarity. Here is the email, signature removed:

Professor Mooney,

As I near the end of “Cloister Walk”, I realize I have struggled to find passages that mean something to me. Nevertheless, the book has been endlessly interesting.

Below is an excerpt from a reaction I had to an early quote in the book.

           Norris: “I felt as hard and dry as the bristly grasses of early fall, as exhausted as the drought-            stricken trees around me. Then Gregory reminded me of the greatness of souls, how their true strength can emerge in the worst of times, when the known world is collapsing. ‘My mind divided’, he said of himself, ‘torn to pieces by so many problems.’”

I could not find my own words to better describe my current state, and the country’s current state. I write this a week after Donald Trump has become president. I have participated in two different protests in a matter of one week. I feel emotionally exhausted, lost, confused, left wondering what values are held by the people of this country – the people I know and love.

I am a policy studies student who graduates in a few months. My entire plan of probable careers is shifting. My mother is a teacher in Michigan. She has dealt with the atrocities of DeVos long before she became a household name throughout the country. She fears for her job, her school, and her students. I have friends who work at Catholic Charities. They are unsure how long they will have their jobs. They go to work every day, trying to comfort the fears, confusion, and sadness of their clients. Several of their clients are separated from husbands, wives, or children, and because of current policies, will continue to be separated. My partner is from Turkey and is Muslim. He is afraid that he will be forced to leave. I am afraid he will be humiliated by my government, mistreated by my fellow citizens, and possibly be told he must leave. I worry for what that means for him, for me, for this whole country.

 

This shows how a thoughtful writer (Norris) can filter her own experience through a piece of Scripture and prompt her reader (our student) to filter her own experience through a text previously unknown.

The humanities give us access to modulations of experience that prompt modulations of experience. That modulation needn’t clarify much more than a region of life that resists easy clarification. We resonate with times past and that makes presents vivid, in melancholy or joy or both.

How to be immortal

                                 –The truth is cruel, but it can be loved, and it makes free those who love it.

The human mind is not merely animal, not merely absorbed in the felt transition from one state of life to another. It is partly synthetic, intellectual, contemplative, able to look before and after and to see fleeting things at once in their mutual relations, or as Spinoza expressed it, under the form of eternity

A man who understands himself under the form of eternity knows the quality that eternally belongs to him, and knows that he cannot wholly die, even if he would; for when the movement of his life is over, the truth of his life remains. The fact of him is a part forever of the infinite context of facts.

Man alone knows that he must die; but that very knowledge raises him, in a sense, above mortality, by making him a sharer in eternal truth. . .  He becomes a spectator of his own tragedy; he sympathizes so much with the fury of the storm that he has not ears left for the shipwrecked sailor, though that sailor were his own soul. The truth is cruel, but it can be loved, and it makes free those who love it.

From Santayana’s preface to Spinoza’s Ethics and De intellectus emendatione [On the Improvement of the Understanding], J.M. Dent & sons, 1910.

What Thoreau Can Teach Us About Resisting Trump

Here’s an interview with Mark Greif, conducted by Open Source’s Christopher Lydon, found on The Literary Hub, Feb 1, 2017, originally aired on Open Source.

Christopher Lydon: This year marks the 200th birthday of Henry David Thoreau—the radical anarchist from Concord, Massachusetts who said “No” to government in slavery time and in 1849 wrote the everlasting manual for dissidents in the essay Civil Disobedience. Thoreau comes up pointedly in this week when President Trump says he’ll root out undocumented immigrants in what have been declared ‘sanctuary’ cities in states like New York, Massachusetts and California. In one of his fiercest essays, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” from 1856, Thoreau was responding to the news that under the Fugitive Slave Act a black ‘slave preacher’ named Anthony Burns had been captured in Boston and, despite a near-riot of street protest against Federal troops and US Marshals, was returned to bondage in Virginia. “I have lived for the last month,” Thoreau finally wrote, with the sense of having suffered a vast and indefinite loss. At last it occurred to me that what I had lost was a country.” It’s not a precise parallel here, except in the feeling that an essential piece of the country is at risk, again. So I asked the young Thoreauvian, Mark Greif, to remind us of the author of so much American Gospel, the very odd stick from Concord. Mark Greif is a writer and founding editor of the journal n+1. He’s collected his own essays under a title that’s straight out of Thoreau: Against Everything.

Mark Greif: You know Thoreau’s a funny character, and I’ve found myself thinking constantly in the last few days: What would he make of Trump? What would he make of this government? What would he make of millions of people in the streets at the Women’s March? The contention that Thoreau has, the claim he makes over and over again, is always to start with the individual first. Start with yourself. A Thoreauvian vision of Trump, first of all, is to seem him as a great time-waster, a kind of new time-waster-in-chief, someone who will engross our attention and keep us from living our regular lives, noticing our neighbors, noticing what’s right in front of our nose. At the same time it’s very hard to imagine that Thoreau, who so detested the Mexican War and the US invasion of Mexico, who so detested slavery–

CL: Slavery above all really…

MG: …and on other occasions more or less suggested that it was impossible to live in the state of Massachusetts or in the United States as an ordinary person if there was anyone enslaved elsewhere in the United States. Yeah, it’s funny to imagine him now because, on the one hand, I think he would insist, “you must not let this fool, this comedian, this menace take over your ordinary lives. Do what you would do,” and at the same time it seems clear that he would insist, “you can’t live just an ordinary life but have to manifest yourself in some way by conscience in opposition to this state that would engross you or count you or make you part of an ostensible mandate,” let’s say.

CL: Yeah. The beautiful line and the challenge in that “Civil Disobedience” essay is that the individual of moral conviction and action is already a majority of one. That’s what you’ve got to cultivate, and that’s what will change history, but how?

MG: Well, it’s funny. Thoreau works it through as a set of puzzles, and that essay “Civil Disobedience” has meant so much to so many.

CL: To the world.

MG: To the world. Martin Luther King. But also, it’s still, I think, provides the kind of template for what people call “direct action,” “civil disobedience” now, but it’s a very puzzling essay because on the one hand, he does say just as you say, “forget about majorities. Forget about putting together a majority.”

CL: Even forget about law, compared to truth.

MG: Absolutely. Put the right before the law, and put your single conscience before the state, before every other voter let’s say. At the same time, there is this insistence why should that work? Right? I mean, why should a majority of one exist, or why should it matter if any one person withdraws from the Union, withdraws him or herself from the state, the United States, Massachusetts, etc. In part, his insistence I think is that it works if you make yourself seen, and there’s a real back and forth, you know, with Thoreau between saying, “My life is mine. It only happens once, and the best thing I or anyone can do is to live it is fully and richly as possible. Go to a cabin in the woods if that’s what it takes,” and this other side which suggests that we have to be exemplars for each other and that going to a cabin in the woods is, in some way, not meaningful without a world of people in town saying, “What’s that weird guy doing in the woods?” and without being prepared to explain yourself to them whenever they ask.

“Civil Disobedience” is interesting too, of course, because it’s his most “town” writing, in a way. We don’t think of Thoreau as an urban writer, but the core of that essay is the time when he spends one night in jail, and what he says is, “For the first time I overheard what all the cooks and dishwashers said in the town-inn kitchen. For the first time I overheard the people walking through town in the middle of the night,” and he essentially says, “I saw my town for the first time. I saw what the real institutions of my town are from the other side, from being the person locked up,” and he more-or-less says everybody could do with a night in jail just to see how things work from the inside and from the point of view the person who’s least regarded.

CL: I’m trying to think of people who were a majority of one. Martin Luther King was a majority of one. Nelson Mandela was a majority of one.

MG: Yeah. Well, it’s funny because Thoreau, of course, he likes to set the great up and then tear them down, but in one of his kind of orations, one of these grand flights in “Civil Disobedience,” he says, “You know what the problem with governments is? The problem is that they take Christ and they crucify him, and they take Washington and Franklin and call them rebels,” and he more or less says at one point that the people who are the truest civil servants are, inevitably, the ones whom the state first of all decides are their enemies. They’re the people who’ve stepped out of line.

It is an essay that deliberately has these qualities of a puzzle, a mind bender, a set of the Zen koans or something but one that really survives and is useful today. I sometimes think What Would Thoreau Do: WWTD in these times because he presents you with these immediate puzzles about things we get used to, right? The laws are there. They represent us all, etc. He says, “Well, does it really represent you? What would it take to ask if this represented you?” And then, in a situation like now with Trump where so many people are prepared to say “Not my president. I didn’t vote for him. He represents everything I’m against,” well, that’s all fine, but what will you do with it? Do you go out to stand somewhere to remind people? Do you go home to say, “I’m not going to spend my time embroiled in a kind of folly”? And he doesn’t give you a straight answer, or he doesn’t give you a simple answer, let’s say.

CL: Muhammad Ali strikes me as an extraordinary case too: broke the law, was denied his greatest achievement, went into exile and came back triumphant and remained himself.

MG: Yeah, I mean, and in a sense was lucky to get to come back and have years of lionization, if that’s luck. I mean, I’m sure he himself was not always grateful to the sort of people who in the past had attacked him who now were friendly, but certainly, there is this history of the great American figures, especially black figures who are, because they speak out, speak the truth, pushed away: W.E.B. Dubois and Paul Robeson losing his passport and so forth.

At the same time, I worry for myself. I’m not a particularly heroic or courageous person—although often indignant or outraged—and for the rest of us, the not-quite heroes, to think about what it would mean to withdraw a cent to things that you don’t believe in. It’s a tough task, one that I guess is back on the agenda now.

CL: Thoreau in a way was against everything, except arrowheads and fishes and the woods, but he left a mark!

MG: He was! I mean, it’s the thing I admire endlessly about Thoreau and about many others of our kind of heroic pantheon, and it’s the thing that made this idea of being against everything make sense to me, both as a kid growing up near Walden Pond and visiting it to go swimming and wondering who was this guy of whom everybody admires and buys bumper stickers of now and mugs that say “simplify simplify” from the Concord shop, and yet, in his own time so clearly seems to have been such a crank.

I mean, I guess the principle of Against Everything, ordinarily, is simply that it’s reasonable and right about the things that people say are good and just and true to ask if they really are, to ask if you really believe in the things that everyone seems to believe in and to say “no” first and push first as a way, I guess, of finding out the things that you really do love, the things that you really do stand for and believe in. That’s the Thoreau-ian principle as I take it.

CL: And he’s 200 years old this year so the moral is: Read Thoreau, and feel free to be a crank in the age of Trump.

MG: Be a crank, indeed. You know, Trump in a way he suddenly presents us with the spectacle of a million things that one really is against, one should be against, almost too easily, a mockery of what it is to separate right from wrong or good from bad, and because of that I do think there’s an additional challenge of not letting the Trump moment engross all of your attention nor to assume that the rest of your life is all good and right.

CL: Right after the election Mark, you wrote that we don’t have a president. “No President” was the motto. Sounds like Thoreau’s motto of “better than small government would be no government,” but where do you go with that slogan?

MG: I was trying to think what was good in a moment of really realizing the worst, having the worst-fear president, and I was trying to think too why I felt uneasy with the slogan that you heard from people: “not my president.” It always worries me a bit when you think you can simply opt out of responsibility for a state that relies on the collective consent of the governed.

I think with his vision of “no president” is something other than a slogan. What I imagine, really, is that it might well be time, in a country that vowed it would not have kings or queens and would not have single leaders, to find a way out of always thinking of ourselves endlessly fantasizing in relation to single individuals. Presidents or possible presidents. During the election I did find myself thinking this was crazy to spend so much time thinking “Am I more like Hillary? Am I more like Donald? Do I like Hillary? Do I like Donald?” Who cares? Why even use these single names for single people as kind of exemplars of who we might be as a nation?

So yeah, I thought maybe it’s time to grow up, get rid of an executive that was never meant to be very powerful in the first place, force ourselves actually to look at Congress and make them do things and think, as probably the founders wished us to, in kind of collectives of two houses of Congress, of representation from all of us, etc. Not just as a thought experiment, I do feel kind of in earnest. It actually might be good to think about what the United States would be like if we could get rid of presidents altogether, and certainly, Trump presents a real case of it because I do think his election is illegitimate in many ways, and as a political personality he seems illegitimate to be a leader precisely because of his life and lies and all the rest.

I think there’s something there too about Thoreau of use now, and something very unfamiliar to us now about Thoreau is that he really did think of himself, rightly, as being very close to the founding, right? So, it’s let’s say 75 years earlier when he’s writing his major works, and there he was in Concord and Lexington, and he thought, “Oh, these people who started a new country and founded the nation, well, that’s my grandparents’ generation.” But, for that reason, he had this odd idea that every person or every American might think of him or herself as, again, being a kind of founding generation.

You might have to ask yourself, “Well, we gained our independence, we said. Did we actually gain independence?” It’s in line with his great joke about writing his book for those who are said to live in Concord. The joke, of course, is that he doesn’t mean that there’s any doubt about where they’re located but that there’s some doubt, by his standards, of whether they’re really living, and Thoreau would put to us the question all these hundreds of years later: Have we really achieved independence in the way that we promised ourselves with this government, and if not, what would it take?