[Thanks to my friend Dave Garland, who converted my thesis from PDF form into something that can be printed here.]
THOREAU’S EARLY SOCIAL VIEWS
AS INFLUENCED BY HIS PERSONAL RELIGION
by Frank DeMarco
A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the
requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in the
Department of History in the Graduate College of
The University of Iowa
Thesis Supervisor a Professor Stow Persons
To those who agree that Thoreau
meant what he said, and was correct
in saying that “there is nowhere any
excuse for despondency. Always there is
implies a divine satisfaction.”
The author appreciates the encouragement and
advice offered by Dr. Persons in the preparation of this paper.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER l — THE EARLY JOURNAL AS EVIDENCE
CHAPTER 2 — THE INDIVIDUAL AND THE DIVINE
CHAPTER 3 — THE INDIVIDUAL AND THE QUEST
CHAPTER 4 — THE INDIVIDUAL AND SOCIETY
LIST OF REFERENCES
In his journal for the years 1837-1847 Thoreau left evidence that his ideas on economics, politics, and society are all interrelated and all have a common source : the belief that all men have access within themselves to the divinity which orders the universe, and therefore may by attention to the promptings of their inner voice discover the manner of living which will best aid them to perfect themselves.
This belief led logically to his dismissal of outside authorities: There could be no higher authority outside an individual, either religious or secular, if each man carried within himself the ability to know what was right. It led to a concentration on the inner life, and consequently to a sort of impatience with the distraction often posed by the necessities of the outer one. It led to a preference for Nature, as the symbol of the Divine. Finally, it led to sweeping criticisms of the lives of men in the society in which he found himself, and to proposals for society which would offer more encouragement to the pursuit of the inner spiritual life.
Of course, the key idea is not Thoreau’s alone, or even primarily. It is the very essence of Transcendentalism; it is the idea which made Emerson so unpopular with orthodox churchmen of the time (and since). However, to merely call Thoreau a Transcendentalist is to place his uniqueness into a mold which, as it was designed to fit several, may not fit any very well.
I have tried to write about Thoreau without resorting to the standard labels. I am convinced that although they were originally manufactured to aid the understanding, they have become through constant and careless use and over-use, more obstruction than aid. He has been labelled anarchist, escapist, poet, naturalist, poet-naturalist, — deanthropocentrist even. Why? He himself said he wished to be considered a member of no group he had not joined.
These labels are not precise definitions of his thought, — merely convenient shorthand for specific aspects of his totality, aspects whose extent and limit is made clear ideally, in the context in which the shorthand is used. Obviously this is necessary to keep extensive statements within acceptable limits of space and patience — but unfortunately it is too short a jump from saying Thoreau was in some respects a certain type of naturalist, to saying Thoreau was a naturalist (presumably, ANY naturalist).
Because a man may contain certain characteristics commonly contained within a certain category does not mean that he may safely be taken to possess whatever characteristics the mention of that category may happen to suggest. I have tried in this paper to emphasize, not the uniqueness of the elements of Thoreau’s personal philosophy, — they are not unique, — but the uniqueness of the combinations as he put it together. Labels would, I feel, only distract.
A word is needed on the use of Thoreau’s journal entries to illustrate those beliefs defined in the text of this paper. It is true that strictly speaking, they prove nothing they merely illustrate. The sense of Thoreau’s thought can best — perhaps only — be caught by a reading of the Journal itself: The interpretation of quotations leads always to the question of what he did mean by this or that.
Ultimately this is a matter of individual judgment, for while some interpretations can safely be ruled out, one particular interpretation only cannot always be safely ruled in. However this much may be said: The interpretation has not been fabricated by the arbitrary selection of a few unrepresentative quotations, and cannot be easily refuted by other, contradictory, passages. Nor has he been quoted out of context: the non-sequential structure of the Journal to some extent obviates this danger. (He himself compared his structure of discrete paragraphs to a museum of statues, nowhere holding hands).
Thoreau is recognized as pioneer conservationist and ecologist, discoverer of the powerful social tool of Civil Disobedience, and protestor against materialism, slavery, and orthodoxy. With time he will come to be more widely famed, with Emerson, as one of the first American thinkers to combine the best of Oriental and occidental thought into a new synthesis acceptable to both traditions. The liberation of India demonstrates the usefulness of his synthesis to Eastern peoples; the destruction of legal Segregation here demonstrates its usefulness to Western peoples: Both events demonstrate its power. It seems safe to say that his influence can only continue to grow.