Is Thoreau a menace?

I had been browsing in Thoreauviana and came across a little essay by an author of a pretty big book on Thoreau.  He’ll remain unnamed; I want to vent, and do it in relative privacy.  Here’s the irritating fact.  After 4/5 of the essay being generally sympathetic toward Thoreau, I discovered in the last paragraphs that Thoreau  probably should be ‘dismissed’ (he “has no philosophy of human relations”) and is ‘selfish’ — and a ‘menace’ to boot.  My pique centered on a feeling of double-cross: I had spend time agreeing with a sensitive and appreciative picture as the author got me again to love Thoreau —  and then at the end he throws a tantrum like a jilted lover!  What is Thoreau’s power to provoke this sort of violence? 

It’s not just that the author disagrees with Thoreau’s individualism on deliberative philosophical grounds.  Somehow Thoreau — for this author and others — gets under the skin as a personal irritant and ego attack — maybe like Socrates to all who voted against him.  Thoreau gets treated as a delinquent adolescent who disobeys parents and runs off to the woods, abandoning ‘the real’ social-political-economic world and its responsibilities. And thus, however lovable, must be punished.


15 comments on “Is Thoreau a menace?

  1. dmf says:

    I hope that we are moving away from the quests for the holygrails of encyclopedic/systematic knowledge of all things for all times and persons but obviously such desires still reign for many.
    Trying to imagine such complaints being brought against a novelist or a composer.

    • efmooney says:

      Yes! — there’s not a check list of topics all philosophers must cover, any more than there are such lists, as you say, for composers or novelists. Thoreau does what he does very well, and that may or may not include having a worked out “ethics of human relations.” Not having one does not make him a ‘menace.’ And in fact he has a rough sketch of one, both at the level of politics (think of his civil disobedience and anti-slavery essays), and (implicitly) in the example he sets of warm and responsive relations — say with his Canadian wood chopper friend or with his brother John (A WEEK on the CONCORD has a long chapter on friendship).

  2. j. says:

    i think the correct response to that is ‘i got your philosophy of human relations right here’ (vulgar gesture follows, followed by exit from the scene).

  3. efmooney says:

    Thanks, Dirk. It turns out that Christopher Long, who ‘speaks’ from this link, speaks of an ‘economy of perception’ where things speak to us and we speak to (and of) things, and such thinking is embedded in the world but becomes, in a sense, ‘divine’ — we are responsive, dialogical creatures in a world that participates in our responsiveness. All this is very Thoreau (though the author sticks to Aristotle). I especially like his notion of truth as a capacity for responsiveness, or availability — things (and persons) being available to us, and we being available to them, in ongoing and unending conversations and inter-animations that are our mortal life.

  4. Steve says:

    Does this author you mention address Thoreau’s explicit defense of himself against the charge of selfishness? I’m thinking especially of the last ten paragraphs of “Economy.” The author might not agree with them, might call them a startling anticipation of Nietzsche or some such thing; but at least he should read them closely and bring out the honest intention in them. To narrow it down to an earlier phrase: “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” Is this the typical sentiment of a menacingly self-centered man? Or is it perhaps philanthropy under another definition? Or is it not so easy to say?

    The argument comes down, I suppose, to the fact (if it is a fact) and the importance (if it is important) of individual “genius.” If you believe in such a thing, as the Transcendentalists did heart and soul, then the argument goes one way; if don’t, then it goes another. So what are its merits? Am I my brothers keeper only if that “way” happens to be my own? And what about saving the world from annihilation, nowadays so much more than a figure of speech? Am I obliged? That’s the cool question if one is inclined to ask it.

    In “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau says: “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.” Either there was a lot less cross-contamination in Thoreau’s day or the soap was much stronger.

    • efmooney says:

      Thanks for this, Steve. “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each others eyes for an instant?” I think the evidence is overwhelming that Thoreau is not ‘selfish’ or a ‘menace’ for lacking an out and out ‘social ethics’ But it interests me that otherwise somewhat sensitive readers nevertheless feel personally — what, ‘belittled’? — by Thoreau to such an extent they suddenly, erratically, lash out with street epithets like ‘menace’ that I’m sure are not standard critical diction for them . Here’s a link to the strange (half wonderful, half sad) essay:

  5. Steve says:

    Eventually Thoreau came to realize the naiveté of thinking that he might free his conscience from the claims of his social and political milieu. Even if he was not directly implicated in the wrong surrounding him – a fact questionable in itself considering the reach of our indirect entanglements – he could not finally wash his hands of it. In “Slavery in Massachusetts,” sixth paragraph from the end, he seems to retract the (what I call) disengagement clause in “Civil Disobedience”: “…I had foolishly thought that I might manage to live here, minding my private affairs, and forget it. For my part, my old and worthiest pursuits have lost I cannot say how much of their attraction…. I dwelt before, perhaps, in the illusion that my life passed somewhere only between heaven and hell, but now I cannot persuade myself that I do not live wholly within hell.”

    In a world so overwhelmingly wicked, he seems to say, there’s no such thing as guilt-free pursuit of one’s genius. Interestingly, though, he seems to reassert a muted version of the disengagement clause in “A Plea for Captain John Brown”: “I speak for the slave when I say that I prefer the philanthropy of Captain Brown to that philanthropy which neither shoots me nor liberates me. At any rate, I do not think it is quite sane for one to spend his whole life in talking or writing about this matter, unless he is [like John Brown] continuously inspired [i.e. following his genius], and I have not done so. A man may have other affairs to attend to.”

    Personally I have mixed feelings about all this. There’s the part of me that thinks Thoreau’s words on philanthropy in “Economy” are the only healthy attitude to take toward the accumulated wrongs that I can’t make right and more than half suspect are beyond remedy in any case. Then there’s the part of me that thinks I’m making excuses. Anyway, Thoreau was a serious thinker, and even his personal dilemmas go to the heart of the matter. I don’t see how that could ever be a menace.

  6. Having received such a kind note from Ed, about my conversation on Digital Dialogue episode 64 with John Lysaker, , I thought I would respond publicly to include others in the conversation, especially dmfant, who I now see is the one who directed Ed to my work on Aristotle.

    In the email, Ed says: “I want nature to speak, and sometimes to speak first, our speech being (at times) an echo of an original ‘from nature’.” He goes on to ask: “… can nature (birds, mountains) speak, or at least bespeak ‘soul’, and hence be included in the ‘sphere’ of inter-subjective relationality as a participant in the conversation?”

    To this, I want to simply say yes.

    But questions remain. Are we humans able to cultivate habits of listening that enable us to hear what it is nature is saying? Are we able to integrate the objections objects make to our interactions with them in ways that enrich our relationship with the natural world?

    More specifically, will we allow our concrete human practices to be altered by the things nature says to us?

    Obviously, precisely what nature is saying is a matter itself of relational dialogue that includes inter-human connections as well as our complex relationships with nature. Obviously too, like humans, nature does not speak with one voice, so being attuned to the plurivocity of human and non-human voices alike is critical as we enter into dialogue with one another. I don’t think we should shy away from allowing the boundary between human language and the language of nature to be porous – ultimately, I think, it will open new possibilities for humans and nature alike.

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