More on Thoreau Bashing


Kathryn Schulz’s thesis, as stated in her fifth paragraph, is that Thoreau’s self-preoccupation (narcissism) leads to a “deeply unsettling” political vision that slights “the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people.” In my opinion, this is a perfectly valid line of inquiry. What exactly is the ethical import of Thoreau’s categorical injunction “Explore thyself” and what specifically does it mean for a person’s social and political involvements, if any? Unfortunately, Schulz’s animus toward Thoreau is so extreme that her inquiry becomes little more than a hodgepodge of accusations, many of which are based on misquotations and a sly avoidance of all contrary evidence.

A simple example of misquotation is her use of Thoreau’s famous line from “Civil Disobedience”: “That government is best which governs not at all.” In Thoreau’s essay, that line does not end with a period, as Schulz and others seem to think, but with a semicolon; and what follows the semicolon is a crucial qualification: “…when men are ready for it…”! One might well make the case that Thoreau was a “libertarian verging on anarchist,” as Schulz suggests, but it is unfair to characterized him as a witless Utopian. He explicitly stated that he was not to be classed among the “no-government men.”

A far more important example of Schulz’s tendentious reading is her claim that Thoreau adopted absurdly narrow rules of conduct and demanded that everyone else follow them. Summarizing her indictment, Schulz writes: “To reject all certainties but one’s own is the behavior of a zealot; to issue contradictory decrees based on private whim is that of a despot.”

Seven paragraphs later, in a sweeping parenthesis, she goes on to say that Thoreau’s “claim that he doesn’t want others to imitate him can’t be taken seriously…[because he] dismissed all other lifestyles as morally and spiritually desperate….” She makes this astonishing and quite erroneous assertion only by shunning the very passage that she’s referring to, a passage that plainly states the specific reasons why Thoreau discouraged imitators: “I would not have anyone adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way….” These reasons are far too important to be slighted.

“Walden” repeatedly stresses the importance of maintaining a second-order or critical perspective on one’s life and of always keeping oneself open to novelty and the possibility of self-revision. Indeed, to start over again and discover oneself anew is a primary lesson of the entire book. And of course Thoreau did leave Walden and commence a new life. Why? “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves.”

If there is one unpardonable sin in Thoreau’s teaching, it is to permit oneself to grow bored with life. Ennui, he plausibly claimed, was nothing less than a kind of death (which satisfactorily explains his, according to Schulz, “strange distinction” between life and not life.) Thoreau’s willingness to critically review his life and to change it as experience demands includes, naturally, those “puritanical” and “ascetic” prescriptions that Schulz finds so very objectionable. It’s baffling that she altogether ignores his candid admission: “But to tell the truth, I find myself at present somewhat less particular in these respects. I carry less religion to the table, ask no blessing; not because I am wiser than I was, but…[because] with years I have grown more coarse and indifferent.”

The freedom that Thoreau allowed himself, he fully granted to others as well. The particulars of Thoreau’s regulation of his body were entirely his own and highly flexible; they were not intended to have universal reach. “Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own….”

A more secular-minded person may well dislike the idea of spiritual body-building, but the point is that, for Thoreau, such matters are entirely up to each person to determine for herself according to her own life plan. There are few things about which Thoreau is more insistent than the value of human diversity. In his essay “Walking,” he expresses his tolerance in almost teleological terms, as if diversity were nature’s design for humans: “Men are different that they might be various.”

The problem with Thoreau is clearly not in his supposed moral zealotry and despotism, but in his extreme individualism, i.e., in his (and Emerson’s) idea that a person is to seek personal ethical direction solely by looking to himself. The polestar by which he navigates is ultimately to be determined by what he likes, and this, the mere liking, “is sufficient guidance for all [his] life.” Again: “If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies.”

Exaggerations aside, these and similar propositions—and there are many of them—are at best dubious. However, they are not merely contemptible; they have considerable interest, in fact; and they merit a fair and balance examination. Schulz, sad to say, can’t manage that level of generosity, and the result is a shrill and carelessly documented rant.


2 comments on “More on Thoreau Bashing

  1. dmf says:

    makes one wonder what passes for editing over at the New Yorker these days

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