Let me share some work on Thoreau that presently absorbs me. I’m following up on my earlier question, Why we know — and don’t know — our classics. I approach now from a slightly different angle. I think that a modern university will want us to remember Thoreau by name. But going deeper, finding what he has to say, becomes hard if not impossible on campus, for he has no academic home. That’s not all his fault, and he’s in fine company. So maybe it’s not a bad thing. And with persistence, we even squirrel him in through the checkpoints.
Thoreau belongs to a broad tradition of moral philosophy that flourishes in the work of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, Hegel and Carlyle, and earlier in the work of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Montaigne. This broad tradition — moral philosophy on a grand scale – died out in America and Europe in the first decades of the 20th century. It is now generally deemed impossibly general, disordered, and grandiose. Academics today prize a level of specialization, expertise, and professionalization unknown before the last century, not only within philosophy and its sub-disciplines, but more generally throughout the humanities.
Writers of “grand moral philosophy” like Plato or Spinoza are often enough subject to piecemeal critique today. But contemporary ethicists would not dream of thinking on the scale of these, or of Montaigne, Schopenhauer, or Nietzsche. The latter would not enjoy academic careers, nor would Emerson or Thoreau. They would find university warrens divisive and stifling. They are paradigmatically writers without differentiating expertise.
It’s illuminating to reflect that in 1882 Josiah Royce, traveling from Grass Valley, California, joined the Harvard philosophy faculty because he impressed Charles Pierce and William James by dint of conversations, conducted by post. They improvised on large matters of consciousness and truth. He was not hired (as would be expected today) because he was expertly trained in a well-defined sub-field called “metaphysics,” “epistemology,” or “ethics,” but for a relatively indefinable yet recognizable talent, the capacity to think philosophically.
Here’s a slightly different case. In 1937 Martin Buber immigrated to Palestine and was hired to teach in the sociology department at the relatively new Hebrew University. Academically speaking, where did he belong? Was he a philosopher, a scholar of German and Hebrew, a social theorist, a religious thinker, a psychologist? He belonged everywhere, and therefore nowhere. Despite having held a professorship in Germany in philosophy, when he arrived in Palestine there was no invitation from philosophy. My hunch is that he seemed suspect. He could not be a good philosopher precisely because, like Thoreau, his writing escaped any specialized niche or field of expertize.
Thoreau belongs to the now-moribund tradition of “grand moral theory.” We on-campus consumers feed off it, but don’t cultivate it. We don’t generously give back in kind. It’s hard today even to think in its sweeping terms – a space where history, psychology, religion, natural philosophy, and world literature can inform a vast mural whose aim, shall we say, is immodest: to catch what it is to live, live well among others, against an incalculable background of contingencies and necessities rooted in earth, and poignantly aware of mortality and birth. If we have no tolerance for trying to think in these terms, then Thoreau’s ethics – his wild ethics – is lost.