Thoreau thesis (5) The Individual and society


Self-purification and self-discovery may be either aided or hindered by a man’s relations with others: Thoreau placed his relations with society in this perspective and thus derived his attitudes from his values.

While selected quotations from his Journal could be used to “prove” that he was desperately lonely, that he despised all human conduct, or that he loved his fellow man and wished to serve him, each of these interpretations would include only a part of the truth, — insistence that any part was the whole would distort the truth into falsity.

Put simply, he rejected those relationships which threatened to interfere with his quest for self-fulfillment, but eagerly sought those which might help him become a greater person. He appreciated the advantages organized society offered, but wished to see those advantages put to a greater use, and Wished to see the disadvantages eliminated.

At base, he recognized, we are each alone: no one can ever really understand the important facts of another’s existence.79 Genius especially is solitary.80 But it was also he who said, simply, “Society is fragrant.”81 (As he used the word, society could mean the social order, the company of friends, or any gathering of people which did not include himself). In human intercourse he found many aids to growth.

The society of others served to focus the thoughts of his solitary hours by giving them expression.82 At its best, it encouraged its members: Each was treated as though he were better than he knew himself to be.83 At best, offering a man his complement, rather than his mirror image, it was “additive and he1pfu1.84

It could serve as inspiration to awaken the divine potential in a sleeping individual;85 could free one from petty concern with himself;86 could ennoble the recipient of another’s good opinion.87

But not all society is worth courting or continuing.88 Its worth depends on what if offers : “I do not judge men by anything they can do. Their greatest deed is the impression they make on me.”89 It is not so much who composes the society as ,what that is important: “Our intercourse with the best grows soon shallow and trivial. They no longer inspire us. After enthusiasm comes insipidity and blankness.”90


79 “’Must not our whole lives go unexplained, without regard to us, notwithstanding a few flourishes of ours, which themselves need explanation?” J, p. 440.

80 “[The reader] will discover that, like every genius, [Aeschylus] was a solitary liver and worker in his day.” J, p. 93.

81 Miller, p. 148.

82 “In society all the inspirations of my lonely hours seem to flow back on me, and then first have expression.” J., p. 129.

83 “It is the charm and greatness of all Society, from friendship to the drawing-room, that it takes place on a level slightly higher that the actual characters of the parties would warrant; it is an expression of faith.” J, p. 323.

84 “When we ask for society — we do not want the double of ourselves– but the complement rather. Society should be additive and helpful, we would be reinforced by its alliance.” Miller, p. 216.

85 “There are in each the seeds of a heroic ardor, which need only to be stirred in with the soil where they lie, by an inspired voice or pen, to bear fruit of a divine flavor. J., p. 52.

86 “We may waive just so much care of ourselves as we devote of care elsewhere.” J., p. 437.

87 “So far as we respond to our ideal estimate of each other do we have profitable intercourse.” J, p. 205.

88  “There is a terra firma in society as well as in geography, some whose ports you may make by dead reckoning in all weather. All the rest are but floating Atlantides which sometimes skirt the western horizon of our intercourse.” J., p. 77.

89 J. p. 215.

90 J, p. 355.


Society, to be used to best advantage, must be alternated with a solitary disregard for it,91 lest the individual lose the direction of his life to those around him. He sharply criticized those men he saw that lived always in society, because he felt that each, beneath however unpromising an exterior, were no leas divine than he yet they had forgotten their own divinity.92 He intended to remember his. His divine core would furnish him with certain knowledge of right and wrong — and he, even if unrequested, would furnish that knowledge to society :

It is wholesome advice, — “to be a man amongst folks.” Go into society if you will, or if you are unwilling, and take a human interest in its affairs. If you mistake Messiers and Mesdames for so many men and women, it is but erring on the safe side, — or, rather, it is their error and not yours. Armed with a manly sincerity, you shall not be trifled with, but drive this business of life. It matters not how many men are to be addressed — rebuked, — provided one man rebuke them.93

This passage, written when he was twenty, is hardly the formula for attaining popularity, but it is consistent with his expressed determination to aid his fellow man by advice and by example. Too often, even among the best of men, the conventions stood in the way of a real meeting of minds:94 he wished, intensely, to break this routine, to both offer more to and extract more from society: “I would have men make a greater use of me.”95


91 “Let not society be the element in which you swim or are tossed about at the mercy of the waves, but be rather a strip of firm land running out into the sea, whose base is daily washed by the tide, but whose summit only the spring tide can reach.” J, p. 40.

92 “I would not forget that I deal with infinite and divine qualities in my fellow. All men, indeed, are divine in their core of light, but that is indistinct and distant to me , like the stars of the least magnitude, or the galaxy itself, but my kindred planets show their round disks and even their attendant moons to my eye.

“Even the tired laborers I meet on the road, I really meet as travelling gods, but it is as yet, and must be for a long season, without speech.” J, pp. 382-3.

93 J, p. 98.

94 “Men do not after all meet on the ground of their real acquaintance and actual understanding of one another, but degrade themselves immediately into the puppets of convention. They do as if, in given circumstances, they had agreed to know each other only so well.” J, p. 355.

95 J, p. 205.


Believing that all men are divine in their cores, he wrote : “We must securely love each other as we love God, with no more danger that our love be unregulated or illbestowed.96 He valued love above intellect,97 preferring, or saying he preferred, “ignorance and bungling with love” to “wisdom and skill without.”98

(Love, in his writings, tends to shade off into what we today would likely liable affection; his word is nearer his meaning than is ours).

What human relationships at best could — or should — offer is well indicated in the following entry, which may have been written with one person in mind but which offers us Thoreau’s idea of love:

I thought that the sun of our love should have risen as noiselessly as the sun out of the sea and we sailors have found ourselves steering between the tropics as if the broad day had lasted forever. You know how the sun comes up from the sea when you stand on the cliff, and doesn’t startle you, but every thing, and you too are helping it.99

Thinking of some friend — unnamed , though each may take his guess, — he wrote of those benefits discovered in solitude, which were received, unnoticed in society:

Thou hast loved me for what I was not, but for what I aspired to be. We shudder to think of the kindness of our friend which has fallen on us cold, though in some true but tardy hour we have awakened. There has just reached me the kindness of some acts, not to be forgotten, not to be remembered. I wipe off these scores at midnight, at rare intervals in moments of insight and gratitude.100


96 J, р. 288.

97 “The only way to speak the truth is to speak lovingly; only the lover’s words are heard. The intellect should never speak; it is not a natural sound.” J, p. 332.

98 “Ignorance and bungling with love are better than wisdom and skill without.” J, p. 348.

99 Miller, p. 178.

100 J, p. 456.


Yet he took care to preserve his bristling independence, regardless of his inner feelings. “If my world is not sufficient without thee, my friend, I will wait till it is and then call thee. You shall come to a palace, not to an almhouse.”101 He wished to add, not to subtract; to remember that other individuals too, were divine — that their society could aid his quest and he could aid theirs. Observing society at large, he envisioned great things to be done through cooperation in a worthy cause, — but saw little being done that was worthwhile, and found little evidence of cooperation even in what was being done.

In large part he tended to blame this on men’s tendency to uphold whatever already existed, “though its insufficiency is manifest enough.”102 For example, he decried the disparity between talk of cooperation and the practice:

Men talk much of cooperation nowadays, of working together to some worthy end; but what little cooperation there is, is as if it were not, being a simple result of which the means are hidden, a harmony inaudible to men… To cooperate thoroughly implies to get your living together.103

Despite all their rhetoric about it, and despite the close proximity in which they live, men “have not associated, they have only assembled, and society has signified only a convention of men.”104 Of course the pun on convention is designed to drive the point home twice.


101 J, p. 223.

102 “There is always a present and extant life which all combine to uphold, though its insufficiency is manifest enough.” J, p. 115.

103 J, p. 488.

104 J, p. 39.


The process itself of civilization he found essentially benign– even, occasionally, found valorous105 — alteration though it was of nature.106 It was not life in society he opposed, but rather the unnatural, superficial life that society too often encouraged. He wanted freedom from its luxuries and time-schedules;107 He wished to concern himself with living, and not with getting a living.108 His career was internal.

But around him he saw men letting the finest part of life slip by unnoticed, being too concerned with material life to heed the spiritual.109 They distracted themselves with foolish transiencies to add novelty to lives devoid of interest.110 They lived in the present, — therefore lived without perspective on their 1ives;111 without any special hope.112


105 “Some interests have got a footing on the earth which I have not made sufficient allowance for. That which built these barns and cleared the land thus had some valor.” J, p 250.

106 Occasionally he conceded that man’s works could fit into nature. “The cabins of the settlers are the points whence radiate these rays of green and yellow and russet over the landscape; out of these go the axes and spades with which the landscape is painted. How much is the Indian summer and the budding of spring related to the cottage? Have not the flight of the crow and the gyrations of the hawk a reference to that roof?” J, p. 128.

107 “Can the Walhalla be warmed by steam and go by clock and bell?” J, p. 289.

108 “It has not been my design to live cheaply, but only to live as I could, not devoting much time to getting a living. I made the most of what means were already got.” J, p. 485.

109 “Most men are so taken up with the cares and rude practice of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Literally, the laboring man has not leisure for a strict and lofty integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the fairest and noblest relations. His labor will depreciate in the market. …

“How can he remember well his ignorance who has so often to use his knowledge.” J, p. 381-2

110 “In case of an embargo there will be found to be old clothes enough in everybody’s garret to last till the millennium. We are fond of news, novelties, new things….

“A man who has at length found out something important to do will not have to get a new suit to do it in.” J, pp. 418-419

111 “The present is the instant work and near process of living, and will be found in the last analysis to be nothing more nor less than digestion. Sometimes, it is true, it is indigestion.” J., p. 466.

112 “Most men have forgotten that it was ever morning; but a few serene memories, healthy and wakeful natures, there are who assure us that the sun rose clear, heralded by the singing of birds,– this very day’s sun, which rose before Memnon was ready to greet it.” J, p. 386.


Was it necessary? He thought not. A man did not need money to be great;113 all this concern for possessions was unwarranted and undesirable, serving as it did to stifle any incipient nobleness in a man’s character by subordinating it to the economies implied in “getting ahead.”114

This preoccupation with the things of the world men will put behind them individually as they grow in understanding, — as their spiritual life comes to dominate the material.115 Seen in the perspective of eternity, the present will not loom so large;116 they will come to see that there are more important things to be done with life than to fritter it away absent-mindedly, piece-meal.117



113 “All true greatness runs as level a course, and is as unaspiring, as the plow in the furrow. It wears the homiliest dress and speaks the homeliest language…. Heaven is the inmost place. The good have not to travel far.” J, p. 301.

114 “Be generous in your poverty, if you would be rich. To make up a great action there are no subordinate mean ones. We can never afford to postpone a true life to-day to any future and anticipated nobleness. We think if by tight economy we can manage to arrive at independence, then indeed we will begin to be generous without stay. We sacrifice all nobleness to a little present meanness.” J, p. 241.

115 “To our nearsightedness this mere outward life seems a constituent part of us, and we do not realize that as our soul expands it will cast off the shell of routine and convention, which afterward will only be an object for the cabinets of the curious.” J, p. 277.

116 “The sudden revolutions of these times and this generation have acquired a very exaggerated importance. They do not interest me much, for they are not in harmony with the longer periods of nature. The present, in any aspect in which it can be presented to the smallest audience, is always mean. God does not sympathize with the popular movements.” J., p. 315.

117 “Why let our lives be a cheap and broken hour, which should be an affluent eternity?” Miller, p. 39. Also, “Our task is not such a piece of day labor that a [man] must be thinking what he shall do next for a livelihood, but such that as it began in endeavor, so will it end only when nothing in heaven or on earth, remains to be endeavored.” Miller, p. 142.


When the realization comes, they will remember that only by giving constant expression to their virtue may they increase it;118 they will feed the body without starving the spirit. They will each help bring closer that society of individuals united by love and respect of which Thoreau dreamed:

History tells of Orestes and Pylades, Damon and Pythias, but why should we not put to shame those reserved old worthies by a community of such?119

But he proposed no specific, institutional changes. Nor did he set forth a plan to actively push for “reform” of society. He did not propose to do more than describe his vision, and to set an example in his own life. Certainly he did not propose to attempt to bring the ideal closer to reality by joining, or founding, a “reform” organization. During these years, at least, he consistently rejected all such societies, for reasons which follow logically from his belief that every man carries within himself, however deeply hidden, divine knowledge and goodness.

Most social reform groups are based on the assumption — implicit or explicit — that reforming the social conditions and institutions around the individual produces better, faster, results than does “uplifting” individuals. Obviously no one who viewed his own soul as the ultimate authority, and every other man’s soul as that man’ authority, could subscribe to this theory, — and Thoreau did not. Self-reform was his quest, and as he would not accept the possibility of reform from without, he could not agree that it could be imposed successfully by whatever combination of persuasion and environmental change.

One looks in vain for a favorable mention of the word “reformer” in the Journal of these years.120 As late as 1845 he called those reformers “frivolous almost” who concentrated on attacking Negro slavery before trying to free their own hearts and intellects from their own “keen and subtle masters.”121

For much the same reason he rejected communities dedicated to collective improvement, such as Brook Farm and Bronson Alcott’s short-lived Fruitlands. “Do you think your virtue will go to board with you?” he asked. “The boarder has no home.”122 He could not believe that individuals could better improve themselves in company than alone. Reform was an internal matter: The true reform “calls no convention.”123

Similarly, he rejected that “charity,” organized or private, which consisted of giving material rather than moral and spiritual aid. “We can render men the best assistance, by letting them see how sore a thing it is to need any assistance. I am not in haste to help men more than God is. If they will not help themselves, shall I become their abettor?”124

The assumption unstated is that he who will improve his internal condition will find himself able to improve his external condition as well. More explicitly, he wrote:

What is called charity is no charity, but the interference of a third person. Shall I interfere with fate? Shall I defraud man of the opportunities which God gave him, and so take away his life? … I will not stay to cobble and patch God’s rents, but do clean, new work when he has given me my hands full. This almshouse charity is like putting new wine into old bottles . . . We go about mending the times, when we should be building the eternity.125


118 “Are we not reminded in our better moments that we have been needlessly husbanding somewhat, perchance, our God-derived capital, or title to capital, guarding it by methods we know? But the most diffuse prodigality a better wisdom teaches, — that we hold nothing. We are not what we were. By usurer’s craft … we strive to retain and increase the divinity in us, when infinitely the greater part of divinity is out of us.” J., p. 386.

119 J, p. 113

120 “… a reformer, with two soldier’s eyes and shoulders, who began to belabor the world at ten years, a ragged mountain boy, as fifer of a company, with set purpose to remould it from those first years. J, p. 262

121 “I wonder men can be so frivolous almost as to attend to the gross form of negro slavery, there are so many keen and subtle masters who subject us both. Self-emancipation in the West Indies of a man’s thinking and imagining provinces, which should be more than his island territory, — one emancipated heart and intellect! It would knock the fetters from a million slaves.” J. pp. 362-3.

122 J, p. 227

123 “The true reform … calls no convention…. When an individual takes a sincere step, then all the gods attend, and his single deed is sweet.” J., p. 247.

124 Mıller, р. 217.

125 J, p. 212.


Immediately thereafter he adds the underlying assumption. “I must serve a strong master, not a weak one. Help imples a sympathy of energy and efforts else no alleviation will avail.”126 (Emphasis added). No one may be reformed without his active cooperation — and if he actively cooperates, he needs no outside aid.

Another cause that was not his was that of attempting to abolish war by means other than improving man’s nature through individual reform.

What is human warfare but just this, — an effort to make the laws of God and nature take sides with one party. Men make an arbitrary code, and because it is not right, they try to make it prevail by might. The moral law does not want any champion. Its asserters do not go to war. It was never infringed with impunity. It is inconsistent to decry war and maintain law, for if there were no need of war there would be no need of law.127

In other words, until men govern themselves from within, they will continue to need to be governed from without, — and no “reform” can touch either the institution of war or that of law until man so changes his nature that they will be necessary no longer.

Society, then, would be improved through the self-reform of those individuals who composed it – not by tinkering with the institutions which they in their ignorance had set up. When the men changed, institutions would change.


126 Ibid.

127 J, p. 334.




All men are one with God — as is all creation, — but men have forgotten. In this forgetfulness is the root of the vices and the weaknesses which prevent men from fulfilling their potential. Instead of concentrating on obeying the internal promptings which, heeded, would lead to maximum spiritual growth, most men bog themselves down in a morass of possessions and speculations. They think by feeding their bodies to save their souls — or, rather, they think to feed the body, but ignore the soul altogether. In their individuality they lose sight of the universal.

Yet, in society they not only do not regain sight of the universal, but forget even their individuality. Organized around proper priorities, society might aid each to lead a more fruitful, more spiritual, life; but as constituted, it merely adds another layer to the distractions with which they surround themselves. Cooperation in a worthy cause is a good and noble thing, — but noble causes are scarce and cooperation even more so.

This will change as the race matures — and not until. Increased wisdom will counsel an end to pre-occupation with gadgets and novelties, appliances and news, reform movements and politics. Men will learn as they grow that all reform is individual, and that the most effective aid that may be offered is example. The millennium will not appear until all men discover– and heed– their own inner wisdom.

So wrote Thoreau, in solitude, between his twentieth and thirtieth years, while following that individual path that led to Walden, “Civil Disobedience,” Life Without Principal, ” and immortality.


5 thoughts on “Thoreau thesis (5) The Individual and society

  1. Appreciating very much all you have written about Thoreau here Frank.

    Indeed it gave a much larger picture of him than I ever knew before !

    ….as always something new to learn, that`s for sure. Thanks a lot !
    B & B Inger Lise

    P.S. But at the same time wonder if it is all a dream anyway? “A state of Mind only”?
    Such as IF we are to BELIEVE it is to be true, then it will continue to “exist.” But at the same time, in the same second you (we) are to realize it is only “a Hologram” of imagination it`ll disappears. And therefore IF in you(us) are able in STEPPING OUT OF “the imagination/picture” about whatsoever images in us doing of the universe, and the world about us ( including All D`s ) … Then it is, according to Seths`, to become no more of your reality.
    I can say repeatedly to myself (in my mind as in hypnosis):
    “I do not believe in anything I see as to be true, it is only a dream which is not there.”
    If everybody else(the mass-consciousness)about us TO BELIEVE their cosmic picture/imagination to be true, well, then, whatsoever each of us (including the entity “we”) to believe about our world, it`ll working out that way too.
    And IF in us who do NOT believe the world about us to be true anymore ( as we once did ), but nowadays it seems to, never-the-less, we are to become “forced” into living(“returning incarnations”) in the same way over and over again, untill ALL of us becoming aware of dreaming? And when becoming aware enough, the Cosmic “picture” ceasing to exist, because the Eternity is “here and now.”

    1. I suspect that our accepted reality is “sort of” real, or let’s say relatively real, and that when we move up a notch we see that it was more a dream than the solid thing it appeared to be. But maybe that’s true of reality at all levels — any level of reality is “relatively true” but not absolutely true. The big unknown to me is how much group-think participates in maintaining any layer of reality. I think the guys, or maybe Rita, said at one point that the mineral world’s consciousness holds the world in solid form. Worth thinking about.

  2. Hi, thank you, and yes, I am to recall the old saying: ” Solid as a Rock.” Edgar Cayce had several readings about the Mineral & Animals & Plants of “Kingdoms.” Theosophy had several clairvoyant persons telling about it. Such as Leadbeater, Alice Bailey and especially Geoffrey Hodson. The late Geoffrey Hodson is felt very reliable to me, though he was among “the indoctrinated” Theosophists all his life.
    All about Group-Consciousness. A group-formation into consciousness/-some calling it “a group-agreement” of consent.

    P.S. Very early autumn this year here with us along the southren coastline(Norway have the Golf-stream along the far-stretched coastline),and it is one month earlier than usual.
    The leaves of the Birch already becoming yellow, and the Rowanberry-trees full or the red berries, an old saying which seems to fit also: The sign of much snow coming up in the wintertime(usually it is not much snow here in my area to live). You have to drive “up country” into the inland areas to go skiing. And in the latest decades less snow up in the hills likewise. The folks complaining about lesser with enough snow for the skiing.
    Well, up until now a peaceful corner of the world. Hopefully it`ll lasts! The whole world coming into my living-room by the Lap-Tops & TV. (smiling).

    1. I feel it strongly as a two-edged sword, my ignorance. IF I had read so many of the people you cite, I would have known that what I’m bring forth from Rita and others has had corroboration from others, in advance! Comforting. Yet, had I read them, I would have been saying to myself, “probably I’m just bringing this forth because I read it and forgot I had read it.” Proving, you can’t win! 🙂
      I know I’ll never see Norway, but you certainly make it sound beautiful.

      1. Thank you.
        At least it is a peaceful place (at the countryside) and area to live still…(a calm before the storm?)
        And sitting here in the early morning, on the veranda, with a cup of coffee, looking at the lake & hillsides, enjoying life.

        Smiles, Inger Lise

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