The Politics of Thoreau: A Spiritual Intent was published in the Thoreau Society Bulletin, No. 262, Spring 2008, and it appears here by permission of the Thoreau Society. This essay should not be copied or reproduced without consent. For more information on the Thoreau Society or to obtain copies of past issues of the Bulletin, please go to: www.thoreausociety.org
The Politics of Thoreau: A Spiritual Intent
by Cathryn McIntyre
The theme of the next Thoreau Society annual gathering is: "The Individual and the State: The Politics of Thoreau in Our Time." Thoreau's views are always worth considering when assessing the political landscape of any time, but as I read through his politically inspired essays and lectures I am continually impressed, not by his political views, but by the way his spiritual awareness influenced his political views, and in fact all of his thinking, and it is that spiritual awareness, not his politics, that interests me most.
I believe Thoreau was first and foremost a spiritual man, a prophet in some ways, as from his post there at Walden Pond he foresaw the many challenges that would face mankind if we continued, as we did, at full speed into the industrial age. He had already witnessed men who led lives of quiet desperation as they sought satisfaction and fulfillment in material gains, and he knew this futile effort would only increase as new industry brought more goods to be obtained and more hours were spent working to earn the money to pay for such goods. The instruction from his masterwork, Walden, to "simplify, simplify" has for 154 years now summed up his message that satisfaction cannot be found in material things and the statement from his essay "Walking" that "Wildness is the preservation of the world" reminds us that nature offers us salvation as it stands as a testament to purity and truth, while at the same time it calls us to recognize what is most natural within us. It is important to note that he says "wildness" not "wilderness" as he is not simply speaking of nature (the wind, the trees, the birds), but of the quality of nature within man. The preservation of the world is within the wildness of nature and in the wildness, or we might say naturalness, of man, and the natural state of man is to Thoreau a spiritual one. This is a theme that is present throughout all of his work.
In Walden he states: "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." Thoreau also states that he wants to "suck out all the marrow of life" and he doesn't do this in a factory or even a university, he does this in his relations with nature and in establishing a direct relationship with the divine.
It is in Walden where he remarks: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Thoreau believed if you confine a man under government rules, tie him to his occupation, and monopolize his time with strictly material pursuits while holding him back from a direct relation with nature or from a direct connection to the divine, you will have a man who is leading a life of quiet desperation.
Thoreau spoke to the soul of man and challenged him to leave be the material concerns, to demand instead freedom and the right of self-determination. He inspired us to trust the wisdom that we receive through our own conscious connection to spirit and encouraged us to have the strength to pursue truth on our own, to stand up against the forces of politics or religions that attempt to use us for their own purposes and to establish instead our own true connection to the divine. This may be a solitary journey, but it is one that always leads us back to the whole.
Thoreau's political views were formed around this thinking. The only laws that he believed in were what he called the higher laws. He was not a politically-minded man. He did not support any political system. He believed that all institutions of government were by their very nature corrupt. He found the laws of the state to be unjust because they sought to dominate and control their citizens and undervalued the right of every man to self determination. He did not believe in majority rule because even if the majority were in agreement it did not guarantee that what they had agreed upon was right. The only majority Thoreau believed in was a majority of one.
In Thoreau's view, the wisdom that comes to the individual through his own conscience is far superior to the wisdom that is offered by any political system or state government.
In his essay most familiarly known as, "Civil Disobedience," he asks: "Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?—in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then?"
The rights of the individual are paramount to Thoreau, and the only government he could respect would be one that comes about naturally through a consensus of conscience-driven individuals. At no time would he favor the rights of the state over the rights of the individual and he had no respect for any man who allowed the laws of the state to overrule his own sense of right.
In "Civil Disobedience" he states: "I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience."
And he goes on to discuss how "essentially revolutionary" this concept of divinely inspired action is:
"Action from principle—the perception and the performance of right --changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was. It not only divides states and churches, it divides families; ay, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine."
Thoreau's willingness to trust conscience is evidence that he was aware of something much deeper and more relevant than any political concern. Thoreau and all of those who followed the philosophy known as transcendentalism, which favors intuition over rationality in determining ultimate truth, believed that the conscience was man's link to the divine source, what Emerson called "the wise silence" and what Thoreau recognized as a wider spiritual reality. It matters not whether it is called Allah, Buddha, Krishna or God, it is all the same and it is the source from which we are all born.
Those who have a highly developed sense of the spiritual have an easier time grasping this concept, but those who are unable to see themselves as anything other than physical beings never fully understand Thoreau's broad intent and are left with a cursory or surface understanding of his true message. They label him a naturalist, a botanist or a surveyor of land, which are all correct words to define his interests and occupations, and yet they do not address the most relevant part of him. They also erroneously label him an anarchist because he encourages defiance of government rule, even though in "Civil Disobedience" he clearly asks for "not at once no government, but at once a better government." He is not advocating for a system of anarchy, where every man's self-centered and ego-driven desires are paramount and at odds with his fellow man. What he envisions is a government that allows for perfect sovereignty for the individual. This is for him a manner of living where conduct is not dictated by the laws of a government, but by the higher laws. When guided by those laws, individuals act in proper portion and respect for one another and live in peace and harmony. This is Thoreau's ideal. This is his hope for mankind.
Thoreau's political philosophy then is not an antagonistic one. He is not simply calling for dissension and disputes with government for the sake of defiance, but he is calling for each individual to better understand his own true nature, to recognize himself as a spiritual being that is part of a much larger whole, and then to act in accordance with a true sense of right that can only come from a direct relation to that center. No political or religious system is necessary to make this connection. It is there and available to all of us. It is who we are, and Thoreau teaches us that we can reach this through a deep respect and cultivation of nature, which he sees as our greatest guide for discovering the truth of all. Thoreau sees nature as a perfect system, one where politics are not needed or necessary. All parts and particles of nature are in touch with their true selves, a tree is a tree, a frog is a frog. For Thoreau it is an environment of divinely inspired beings, in touch with their own true natures and acting accordingly and he wishes the same for man.
In "Civil Disobedience" he states: "I perceive that, when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other. If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man."
Thoreau believed man must be allowed to cultivate the soul within him, and if allowed to do so, each man will arrive at the same conclusion, and it is one that will bring enlightenment not just to the individual but to all. This may be considered by some to be an idealistic view, but this was Thoreau's truth, his perfect understanding of what is.
Those who seek to challenge such views often point to an apparent flaw in Thoreau's thinking that arises when the subject of politically- or religiously-based fundamentalism is raised, but there is a distinct difference between Thoreau's faith in the individual to use his conscience to intuit proper and right action and the faith of the religious fanatics who blow up abortion clinics or who engage in terrorism such as America's 9-11 or England's 7-7. Those individuals are not engaged in acts that are guided by the divine source of ultimate truth; they are committed to following the imperatives outlined for them by their religious or political beliefs. They are engaged in a form of majority rule.
Thoreau's support of abolitionist John Brown is another example that is thought to challenge the wisdom of his beliefs. Thoreau believed Brown to be a man whose actions were guided by conscience and by an ultimate sense of right. Much like Thoreau, Brown saw slavery and the government that sanctioned it as evil and could not sit back resolutely and allow it to continue unchallenged. For Thoreau this meant speaking out publicly against slavery and engaging wherever he could in activities that worked against it, but for Brown this meant an organized revolt, gathering together men who shared his sympathies and would finance his activities and putting together an armed unit of men who would help him carry out his often violent strategies. Many believed Brown to be motivated more by his own religious zeal than by any connection to what was right, and there were many who questioned his sanity, but Thoreau remained steadfast in his support of a man whose actions he saw as divinely inspired, and he lashed out against a government that would put to death such a righteous man.
In his lecture first delivered in Concord, Massachusetts, on October 30, 1859, and in the essay record of it called, "A Plea for Captain John Brown," he states: "The only government that I recognize,—and it matters not how few are at the head of it, or how small its army,—is that power that establishes justice in the land, never that which establishes injustice."
The government that put John Brown to death was an unjust government, and Brown was, in Thoreau's view, the worthiest of men. Given how violent many of Brown's activities were, it is remarkable that Thoreau stood by him. It is a testament to the devotion he had not just to Brown, but to his own ideals and principles.
In his plea for John Brown, Thoreau expresses his abiding faith in Brown with such statements as: "Truth is his inspirer, and earnestness the polisher of his sentences," "He shows himself superior to nature. He has a spark of divinity in him," and "This man was an exception, for he did not set up even a political graven image between him and his God." This last statement is most critical, for it is a statement that verifies Thoreau's truest political beliefs, that no government or political image should ever come between man and his God.
It seems to me then that in every direction we go in Thoreau's work we find the same sometimes subtle but ever present message, that we are spiritual beings, born of the same divine source and our actions must be guided by our conscious connection to that source and not by the laws of any government. How great the impact of this philosophy might be on our times if it were more widely understood and practiced. If we followed the wisdom that comes to us directly from the divine, we might no longer have the need for, or the conflicts that result from, politics or religion.
In a journal entry from April 2, 1852, Thoreau states: "I do not value any view of the universe into which man and the institutions of man enter very largely and absorb much of the attention. Man is but the place where I stand, and the prospect hence is infinite. It is not a chamber of mirrors which reflect me."
Copyright 2008, Cathryn McIntyre - This essay should not be copied or reproduced in any form without written consent.