Thoreau thesis (3) The Individual and the divine


Thoreau cannot be understood without full appreciation of his one central belief — that all creation is a unity, in which all creation is contained in its creator. On this one belief all else was built.

He believed in no anthropomorphic god. His Journal refers to the divine indifferently as God, the gods, The Great Spirit, etc., depending on the artistic necessity of the particular passage. His was not the personality Jehovah of the Old Testament, nor the God-man Christ of the New; rather, the divinity which created and ordered the universe was for him universal and all pervasive, not particular and separate.

Therefore he believed that the divine could be found within himself — not, as some religions held, outside himself.2


2 “The Great Spirit makes indifferent all times and places. . . . He is at work, not in my backyard, but inconceivably nearer than that. We are the subjects of an experiment how Singular.” The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Bradford Torrey, ed. (20 volumes, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1906) vol. 1, Journal 1837-1847, pp. 363-4. References to the Journal hereafter will be indicated simply by J.


Evidences of the all-pervasive divinity were also manifest in the entire world surrounding man3— particularly in that world untouched by and indifferent to man called Nature. Love of God, then, roughly equates to love of the totality of existence,4 not love of a separate, though Superior, being. To obey God is to obey one’s own inner instincts– the “divine promptings” which inform anyone who listens What course he should follow throughout his life.5 It is to obey the promptings of enthusiasm, of 1mpulse,6 — and not to smother such impulses with the second-thoughts and hesitations natural to the intellect. It is to trust the unconscious mind—“the consciousness of God”7 — to be more in tune with the universe than is the consciousness of any one fragmentary individual.8


3 “Any melodious sound apprises me of the infinite wealth of God.” Miller, p. 139.

4  “No sentiment is so rare as love of God, a universal love.” J., p. 326.

“The human soul is a silent harp in God’s quire, [sic] whose strings need only to be swept by the divine breath to chime in with the harmonies of creation.” J, p. 53.

“In enthusiasm we undulate to the divine spiritus — as the lake to the wind.” Miller, p. 193.

“The unconsciousness of man is the consciousness of God, the end of the world.” J, p. 119.

8    “Reason will be but a pale cloud, like the moon, when one ray of divine light comes to illumine the soul.” J, p. 360.


It is to know good from evil, right from wrong,9 without need of or submission to outside authority.10 If anyone cannot feel the inner promptings, it is because he has stifled his access to the divine by too much concern with time and the world.11 But he may always reform his ways and regain access to the inner light. No one, in Thoreau eschatology, is of necessity unregenerate:

Always the system shines with uninterrupted light, for, as the sun is so much larger than any planet, no shadows can travel far into space. We may bask in the light of the system, always may step back out of the shade.12


9 “The fickle person is he that does not know what is true or right absolutely, — who has not an ancient wisdom for a lifetime, but a new prudence for every hour…. In general we must have a catholic and universal wisdom, wiser than any particular, and be prudent enough to defer to it always. We are literally wiser than we know. Men do not fall for want of knowledge, but for want of prudence to give wisdom the preference.” J, pp. 257-8.

10 “The religion I love is very laic. The clergy are as diseased, and as much possessed with a devil, as the reformers. They make their topic as offensive as the politician, for our religion is as unpublic and incommunicable as our poetical vein, and to be approached with as much love and tenderness.” J, p. 240.

11 ”When we are awake to the real world, we are asleep to the actual. The sinful drowse to eternity, the virtuous to time.” J, p. 229.

12  J, p 100 .


Continued efforts at self-purification will lead to a life conducted on a higher, more ethereal, plane. “For our aspirations there is no expression as yet,” he wrote, “but if we obey steadily, by another year we shall have learned the language of last year’s aspirations.”13

Every man has within himself the means to move ever closer to perfection, if he will but employ them. He who seeks shall find:

There is something proudly thrilling in the thought that this obedience to conscience and trust in God, which is so solemnly preached in extremities and arduous circumstances, is only to retreat to one’s self, and rely on our own strength.14

Careful attention to the soul, — not actions, how ever “holy,” — will enable one to avoid evil.15 A superior man’s example might furnish encouragement,16 but only his own interference prevents anyone from realizing his own potential.17


13 J, p. 190.

14 J, p. 180.

15 “We do not avoid evil by hurry-skurry and fleetness in extenso, but by rising above [or] diving below its plane. . . . By our suppleness and speed we only fly before an evil, by the height of depth of our character we avoid it.” Miller, p. 154.

16 “I hear no good news ever but some trait of a noble character. It reproaches me plaintively. I am mean in contrast, but again am thrilled and elevated that I can see my own meanness , and again still , that my own aspiration is realized in that other.” J., p. 290.

17 “We are constantly invited to be what we are; as to something worthy and noble. I never waited but for myself to come round; none ever detained me, but I lagged or tagged after myself.” J., p. 91.


To rely on impulse, and internal prompting, to serve as guide to proper action, or inaction, is not to surrender control to the emotions ; quite the contrary. “Passion and appetite are always an unholy land in which one may wage most holy war.”18 It was by conducting an “incessant surveillance” over himself that an individual might “subject passion and appetite to reason, and lead the life the imagination paints[.]19

He lamented that man, who had begun to achieve such scientific marvels, was still so far from being master of himself:

One would suppose that he who had counted the eyes of a fly and the nerves of a caterpillar, must have learned the whole duty of man in his youth. But alas, it is easier to make a white rose black . . . than to do one’s duty for five minutes. It is vastly easier to discover than to see when the cover is off.20

His own path was filled with relapses and periods of stagnation, and at 24 he wrote: “After so many years of study I have not learned my duty for one hour.21 But if he was not yet able to reach the higher plane towards which he was striving, still his recognition of it and his desire for it were the products of past strivings, and anticipated the day when he would attain it, — and then would press toward goals higher still. Sure that he was travelling the right course, he did not despair. “I shall never be poor while I can command a still hour in which to take leave of my sin”22[,] he wrote, and again:

I would be as clean as ye, o woods. I shall not rest until I be as innocent as you. I know that I shall sooner or later attain to an unspotted innocence, for when I consider that state even now I am thrilled.23

Sitting, perhaps, in his cabin by the pond, he wrote : “To purify our lives requires simply to weed out what is foul and noxious and the sound and innocent is supplied, as nature purifies the blood if we will but reject impurities.”24


18 J, p. 55.

19 J, p. 70.

20 Miller, p. 166.

21 Miller, p. 213.

22, J, p. 214.

23 J, p. 302.

24 J, p. 483.


There is much in Thoreau’s personal religion which is common to Oriental religions: Indeed, he could be suspected of imitation pure and simple were there not evidence that his natural thought inclined so before he came into contact with Eastern books.

In the very early Journal– August 1838– is a description of meditation which would not be unfamiliar to one who has practiced one of the various Eastern disciplines such as Zen or Yoga.

If with closed ears and eyes I consult consciousness for a moment, immediately are all walls and barriers dissipated, earth rolls from under me, and I float, by the impetus derived from the earth and the system, a subjective, heavily-laden thought, in the midst of an unknown and infinite sea, or else heave and swell like a vast ocean of thought, without rock or headland, where are all riddles solved, all straight lines making there their two ends to meet, eternity and space gambolling familiarly through my depths. I am from the beginning, knowing no end, no aim. No sun illumines me, for I dissolve all lesser lights in my own intenser and steadier light. I am a restful kernel in the magazine of the universe.25

Similarly Eastern is his statement that sometimes, when at rest, “I almost cease to live and begin to be…. I am never so prone to lose my identity. I am dissolved in the haze.”26 Losing identity, and ceasing to live, beginning to be, are seen as desirable and pleasant– as Easterners are inclined to see it — and not as unfamiliar and threatening, as Westerners might be inclined to regard it.

(Arthur Christy, writing on The Orient in American Trancendentalism, calls Thoreau a “New England Yogi, conditioned by his nativity and his moral and religious heritage.”27 Noting that Thoreau “more than once” called himself a yogi, he states” “Perhaps his words are to be qualified; assuredly they cannot be ignored.”28)


25 J, pp. 53-4.

26 J, p. 75.

27 Arthur Christy, The Orient in American Transcendentalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1932, p. 207.

28 Ibid., p. 199.


Upon becoming familiar with Hindu thought– which he much admired29 — Thoreau extracted what he considered true and helpful and rejected the rest as inspired by the necessities of poetry or the maintenance of the social order. Thus in his writings we find an acceptance of the basic idea of Karma,30 but a rejection of those consequences drawn from it in the East which he found repugnant — such as the caste system.31

Clearly, he was not the man to ape any system; the similarity of his expressed ideas to ideas long prevalent in the East must be seen as the result of affinity rather than of imitation. Such affinity is well demonstrated in statements such as “I wish I could be as still as God is[,]32 paradoxes such as [h]e will get to the goal first who stands stillest33[,] and admonitions such as this: “Do not present a gleaming edge to ward off harm, for that will oftenest attract the lightning, but rather be the all-pervading ether which the lightning does not strike but purify.”34

Weighing the validity of Hindu scriptures in his mind, he found that the wisdom they professed rang true :

Tried by a New England eye, or the more practical wisdom of modern times they are simply are oracles of a race already in its dotage, but held up to the sky, which is the only impartial and incorruptible ordeal, they are of a piece with its depth and serenity, and I am assured that they will have a place and significance, as long as there is a sky to test them by. They are not merely a voice floating in space for my own experience is the speaker.35


29 “Who is writing better Vedas? How science and art spread and flourished, how trivial conveniences were multiplied, that which is the gossip of the world is not recorded in them; and if they are left out of our scriptures, too, what will remain?” J, p. 263.

30 “If we were wise enough, we should see to what virtue we were indebted for any happier moment we might have, nor doubt we had earned this at some time.” J, p. 302.

31 “I was informed to-day that no Hindoo tyranny presided at the framing of the world – – that I am a freeman of the universe, and not sentenced to any caste.” J, p. 280.

32 J, p. 41.

33 J, p. 153

34 J, p. 148

35 Miller, p. 156.


The Oriental strain in Thoreau’s thought — in fact, his religious thought in general, — is well illustrated by his reaction to the death by lockjaw of his beloved elder brother John in 1842, when Henry was 24. So deeply affected was he by the unexpected loss that he contracted a nearly fatal case of sympathetic lockjaw and spent much of the next month in apathetic listlessness. Six weeks elapsed without note in the Journal then it resumed with several passages on friendship, and on life and death. On March 11 occurs this entry :

We can only live healthily the life the gods assign us. I must receive my life passively as the willow leaf that flutters over the brook. I must not be for myself, but God’s work, and that is always good. I will wait the breezes patiently, and grow as Nature shall determine. My fate cannot but be grand so. We may live the life of a plant or an animal, without living an animal life. This constant and universal content of the animal comes of resting quietly in God’s palm. I feel as if [I] could at any time resign my life and the responsibility of living into God’s hands, and become as innocent, free from care as a plant or stone.

My life, my life: why will you linger? Are the years short and the months of no account? How often has long delay quenched my aspirations! Can God afford that I should forget him? Is he so indifferent to my career? Can heaven he postponed with no more ado? Why were my ears given to hear these everlasting strains which haunt my life, and yet to be prophaned by these perpetual dull sounds?

Our doubts are so musical that they persuade themselves.

Why, God, did you include me in your great scheme? Will you not make me a partner at last? Did it need there should be a conscious material?36

This passage is a fair introduction to Thoreau’s thought about life, but it is easily misinterpreted. Many reading it, have written that it is a mourning of defeat. Faced with a fact– John’s death– which he could neither dodge nor rationalize away, they say, Thoreau gave up attempting to live, and began to run away, to hide, from a world and a life he was not strong enough to face.37 I think this interpretation could hardly be more wrong. It stems from looking at Thoreau’s thoughts and actions from exclusively a Western point of view. What, to the Occidental, appear as defeat, passivity and evasion, may appear to the Oriental as victory, serenity, and concentration on proper priorities. Let us look again at the passage.

In the first paragraph he says he wishes to pursue serenity, to practice resignation, to await the divine promptings which will tell him how his life is to proceed. “My fate cannot but be grand so.” It is the next paragraph that has called forth from various critics accusations of blasphemy, bitterness, and despair. But does it warrant them? I think not.

“My life, my life! why will you linger? Are the years short and the months of no account? How often has long delay quenched my aspirations.” In the years he has sought to purify and perfect himself, he has made all too little progress. His life has “lingered” on too low a level, — as demonstrated by the violence of his reaction to John’s death, proving to him that he was as yet still far too little master of himself. He wished to proceed at once to a higher state.

“Can God afford that I should forget him? Is he so indifferent to my career? Can heaven be postponed with no more ado?” Is it, in other words, of no importance to the universal scheme of things if he cease trying to perfect himself, resting content with life led on a merely surface level? Does this not run contrary to the divinely implanted longing for self-betterment of the soul? Is it unimportant how many of his earthly years are wasted on a lower level while he futilely tries to ascend?

“Our doubts are so musical that they persuade themselves.” The all-too-real world around him constantly tempts him to forget the seemingly vain aspirations and longings and live for the moment, on his present level. Also, his emotional reaction to John’s death mocks his belief in the infallibility of his internal divinity as a source of strength.

Finally in the passage, he asks why God made him conscious of the existence of higher levels of being, but would not allow him to rise to them. “Did it need that there should be a conscious material?” Was it necessary to the plan that some who aspired to higher things be limited to the material?

It is true that this whole passage may be interpreted as a death-wish, however conceived. The tone, however, seems more impatience than defeat or despair. And, there is evidence that he found his beliefs — found his life — satisfying and fulfilling throughout these years. By Walden Pond, in 1845, he wrote :

Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men, methinks I am favored by the gods, They seems to whisper joy to me beyond my deserts, and that I do have a solid warrant and surety at their hands, which my fellows do not. I do not flatter myself, but if it were possible they flatter me. I am especially guided and guarded.38

It could be argued that this is the voice of a man deluding himself, or even of a man overcome with pride and arrogance — but it hardly seems the desolate wail of the defeated.


36 J, pp. 326-7.

37 One example is William Drake, The Depth of Walden Thoreau’s Symbolism of the Divine in Nature Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Arizona, 1967.

38 J, p. 365.

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