Thoreau thesis (4) The Individual and the quest


Thoreau believed that every man has within himself divine knowledge ; he set out to find it. This quest led him to frequent mental and occasional physical withdrawal from the world around him, and to disregard of outside opinion and authority. The truths he found within led him to a faith in the basic goodness of life which he then translated into beliefs on how life should be lived.

He early cultivated the habit of introspection and withdrawal, realizing that he could continue his quest only So long as he concentrated on it:

April 8. [1840] How shall I help myself? By withdrawing into the garret, and associating with spiders and mice, determining to meet myself face to face sooner or later. Completely silent and attentive I will be this hour, and the next, and forever. The most positive life that history notices has been a constant retiring out of life, a wiping one’s hands of it, seeing how mean it is and having nothing to do with it.39

Recognizing how easily man may be distracted by the pressing trivialities of the moment,40 he resolved to concentrate on aiding his soul’s development.41 To know himself required a “voluntary blindness”42 to the world for the inner voice.

This inner voice superseded both traditionally accepted wisdom43 and popular opinion.44 Obviously if he had within himself the certain knowledge of right and wrong, no outside authority — be it person or institution — could be closer to this source than himself.45 Nor could he be closer to the inner voice of another than was that other; he could be neither subject nor master; neither could society safely legislate for either.


39 J, pp. 132-3.

40 “The momentous topics of human life are always of secondary importance to the business at hand . . .” J, p. 173.

41 “But pray what has seeing to do with the soul that she must sit always at a window? — for I find myself always in the rear of my eye.” Miller, l65.

42 “It is only by a sort of voluntary blindness, and omitting to see, that we know ourselves . . .” J, p. 253.

43 “Whatever of past or present wisdom has published itself to the world, is palpable falsehood till it come and utter itself by my side.” J., p. 52.

44 “Let us know and conform only to the fashions of eternity.” J, p. 278.

45 “There is but one obligation, and that is the obligation to obey the highest dictate. None can lay me under another which will supersede this.” J., p. 279.


Following his own conscience “in the sight of God and Nature[,]46 regardless of what others might think, was both great freedom and heavy responsibility; his recognition of this ultimate accountability increased his awareness of the solitary nature of life :

How alone must our life be lived! We live on the seashore, and none between ourselves and the sea. . . . None are travelling one road so far as myself.

Each one marches in the van. . . . Parents and relatives but entertain the youth; they cannot stand between him and his destiny. This is the one bare side of every man. There is no fence; it is clear before him to the bounds of space.47

Alone-ness , if not loneliness, was to evoke many a passage in the Journal as the solitary years unrolled — sometimes cries of joy at his eagle’s flight through lonely mountain air,48 sometimes cries of pain at the solitary essence that could not be shared.49 But never did he abandon the journey to stop at a roadside tavern, aware though he was of just how very much alone in his quest he was:

The sublime sentences of Menu carry us back to a time when purification and sacrifice and self-devotion had a place in the faith of men, and were not as now a superstition. They contain a subtle and refined philosophy, also, such as in these times is not accompanied with so lofty and pure a devotion.50


46 “What though friends misinterpret your conduct, if it is right in sight of God and Nature. The wrong, if there be any, pertains only to the wrongdoer, nor is the integrity of your relations to the universe affected …” J, p. 52.

47 J, p. 239.

48 “We are as much as we see. Faith is sight and knowledge …. Whoever has had one thought quite lonely, and could contentedly digest that in solitude, knowing that none could accept it, may rise to the height of humanity, and overlook all living men as from a pinnacle.” J, p. 248.

49 “Of all phenomena, my own race are the most mysterious and undiscoverable. For how many years have I striven to meet one, even on common manly ground, and have not succeeded!” J, p. l53.

50 J, p. 280.


He came to see himself and others like him as pathfinders, discovering and stating truths that others would only later be able to accept.51 Despite occasional assertions that “fear of the world or consequences is swallowed up in a manly anxiety to do Truth justice”52 — indicating that perhaps sometimes the world struck back, — he spent these years carrying out the program he articulated as early as 1837:

As the least drop of wine tinges the whole goblet, so the least particle of truth colors our whole life. It is never isolated, or simply added as treasure to our stock. When any real progress is made, we unlearn and learn anew what we thought we knew before. We go picking up from year to year and laying side by side the disecta membra of truth, as he who picked up one by one a row of a hundred stones, and returned with each separately to his basket.53


51 “All this Worldly Wisdom was once the unamiable heresy of some wise man.” J., p. 162.

52 J, p. 28

53 J, p. 24.


Believing as he did that “[T]ruth has properly no opponent, for nothing gets so far up on the other side as to be opposite[,]”54 he followed wherever it led — and it led to a solitary course and a scorn for the weak-willed followers of public opinion.55 But occasionally he may have wished the task were plainer: “It would be worthwhile,” he wrote in 1841, “once for all, fairly and cleanly to tell how we are to be used, as vendors of lucifer matches send directions in the envelope, both how light may be readily procured and no accident happen to the user[;]56 nonetheless he did not waver.

The quest was the important thing– even recognition of the failure of his efforts to date had its use,57 provided only that the effort was not abandoned. Ultimately it could fail only if he forgot that he was both body and spirit, 58 or if he spent too much time expressing rather than developing his inner consciousness.59


54 J, p. 118.

55 “He is the best sailor who can steer within the fewest points of the wind, and extract a motive power out of the greatest obstacles. Most begin to veer and tack as soon as the wind changes from aft –ae and as within the tropics it does not blow from all points of the compass — there are some harbors they can never reach.” Miller, p. 170.

56 J, p. 179.

57 “If we only see clearly enough how mean our lives are, they will be splendid enough. Let us remember not to strive upwards too long, but sometimes drop plumb down the other way, and wallow in meanness. From the deepest pit we may see the stars, if not the sun.” J, p. 146.

58 “1 have lived ill for the most part because too near myself. I have tripped myself up, so that there was no progress for my own narrowness. I cannot walk conveniently and pleasantly but when I hold myself far off in the horizon. And the soul dilutes the body and makes it passable.” J., p. 322.

59 “Very dangerous is the talent of composition. I feel as if my life had grown more outward since I could express it.” J, p. 349.


Denied recognition by most of his contemporaries as the searcher for truth that he was, denied recognition even as thinker of his own thoughts and not pilferer of Emerson’s, he occasionally became depressed by the contrast between his high thoughts and low status — but then he who wrote that “[a] man must find his own occasion in himself”60 would wrestle his spirits back to equanimity,61 confident that his place in the divine scheme of things would eventually emerge.

His faith that all events are part of a divine plan made him cheerful and unafraid of life, confident that it was good. But the men around him he saw as neither cheerful nor unafraid.

The age is resigned. Everywhere it sounds a retreat, and the world has gone forth to fall back on innocence. Christianity only hopes. It has hung its harp on the willow and cannot sing a song in a strange land. It has dreamed a sad dream and does not yet welcome the morning with joy.62

Comparing this dejection with the bravery of nature,63 he cried that: “There is nowhere any apology for despondency. Always there is life which, rightly lived, implies a divine satisfaction.”64 He began to spell out how he thought life should be lived, calling for men to livre with more enthusiasm.65

Commonly we use life sparingly, we husband it as if it were scarce, and admit the right of prudence; but occasionally we see how ample and inexhaustible is the stock from which we so scantily draw, and learn that we need not be prudent, that we may be prodigal, and all expenses will be met.66


60 J, p 377.

61 “What a consolation are the stars to man! – so high and out of his reach, as is his own destiny. I do not know but my life is fated to be thus low and groveling always. I cannot discover its use even to myself. But it is permitted to see those stars in the sky equally useless, yet highest of all and deserving of a fair destiny…. I do not fear that any misadventure will befall them. Shall I not be content to disappear with the missing stars? Do I mourn their fate?” J, p. 339.

62 Miller, p. 144.

63 “We can conceive of a Bravery so wide that nothing can meet to befall it, so omnipresent that nothing can lie in wait for it, so permanent that no obstinacy can reduce it. The stars are its silent sentries by night, and the sun its pioneer by day. From its abundant cheerfulness springs flowers and the rainbow, and its infinite humor and wantonness produce corn and vines. J., p. 172.

64 J, p. 95

65 “All fair action in men is the product of enthusiasm.” Miller, p. 164.

66 J, p. 454.


Life, he said, should be lived “on the stretch,”67 with vigor and purpose, — for a man makes his own life.68 Excessive caution, luxury and sloth,70 lead to stagnation.

Men should live as though they owned the world, and not as though they had merely rented “a few acres of time and space” from which they could at any time be expelled.71 The only true repose, he said, “can only be the repose that is in entire and healthy activity. It must be a repose without rust. What is leisure but an opportunity for more complete and entre action?”72

While living (in repose) by Walden Pond, he spelled out his thoughts on the active life:

Why not live a hard and emphatic life, not to be avoided, full of adventure and work, learn much in it, travel much, though it be only in these woods? I sometimes walk across a field with unexpected expansion and long-missed content, as if there were a field worthy of me. The usual daily boundaries of life are dispersed and I see in what field I stand.

. . .I say to myself: Yes, roam far grasp life and conquer it, learn much and live. Your fetters are knocked off; you are really free…. The noble life is continuous and unremitting. At least, live with a longer radius.

… Do not rest much. Dismiss prudence, fear, conformity. Remember only what is promised.73

The above passage was written during Thoreau’s Walden years; obviously this proposed life of action should not be construed as one of aimless activity, or one leaving no time for serenity and contemplation — quite the contrary. Concurrent with entries on the necessity and desirability of an active life are such as these:

We may believe it, but never do we live a quiet, free life, such as Adam’s, but are enveloped in an invisible network of speculations. Our progress is only from one speculation to another, and only at rare intervals do we perceive that it is no progress. Could we for a moment drop this by-play, and simply wonder, without reference or inference!74

But I will have nothing to do; I will tell fortune that I play no game with her and she may reach me in my Asia of serenity and independence if she can.75

And this is the art of living, too — to leave our life in a condition to go alone, and not to require constant supervision. We will then sit down serenely to live, as by the side of a stove.76

Are the opposing counsels irreconcilable? I think not. He is concerned that the action performed be worth performing,77 and that it leave his life nonetheless serene. Serenity is the key. Without it any life, no matter how active, is wasted.”78

All man’s activity should aid, not hinder, his pursuit of self-purification and self-discovery. Contemplation and activity are linked opposites — neither is more necessary than the other, neither is dispensible. Only in a life combining both could a man both hear his inner voice and follow where it would lead.


67 J, p. 118.

68 “Man is the artificer of his own happiness. Let him beware how he complains of the disposition of circumstances, for it is his own disposition he blames.” J, p. 26.

69 “We must expect no income beside our outgoes — we must succeed now, and we shall not fail hereafter. So soon as we begin to count the cost the cost beings.” Miller, p. 214.

70 “They are fatally mistaken who think, while they strive with their minds, that they may suffer their bodies to stagnate in luxury or sloth. The body is the first proselyte the Soul makes. Our life is but the Soul made known by its fruits, the body.” J., p. 147.

71 “[The coward] does not dwell on the earth as though he had a deed of the land in his pocket … He has only rented a few acres of time and space, and thinks that every accident portends the expiration of his lease.” J, p. 99.

72 J, р. 294.

73 J, pp. 385-6

74 J, p. 61.

75 J, pp. 153-4.

76 J, p. 218.

77 “Who has not admired the twelve labors? And yet nobody thinks if Hercules had sufficient motive for racking his bones to that degree.” J. p. 79.

78 “Over and above a man’ business there must be a level of undisturbed serenity, only the more serene as he is the more industrious …

He must preside over all he does — If his employment rob him of a serene outlook over his life, it is but idle though it be measuring the fixed stars. He must know no distracting cares.” Miller, p. 184.

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