Autor: Jan Hornát (POST)


Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Henry David Thoreau, the author of the most notable transcendentalist texts and perhaps one of the most important authors in 19th century American literature, has inspired many generations of Americans. Thoreau is, until this day, a very interesting and relevant author. Americans are still interested in the re-editions of his books (especially Walden), which often bring the beauty of nature closer to their hearts. The themes of his writings spanned from the sincere admiration of nature to the role of the citizen in society. For nearly two years, Thoreau lived the life of a hermit at the shores of the Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau chose to undergo this experiment to find answers to questions he could not answer living in the cosmopolitan society. He also hoped to find a way to connect his inner self with nature. Thoreau’s concept of “civil disobedience” inspired many intellectuals and renowned figures, whose actions altered the flow of history – most notably Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

But what were the main thoughts Thoreau conceived during his long walks or in quiet contemplation looking over the steady waters of the Walden Pond? Can his thoughts have any relevance to modern American (and European) society? This essay will attempt to grasp the essence of Thoreau’s political visions and thoughts. In addition, it will set Thoreau’s thoughts into the context of 19th century America, the transcendentalist movement and contemporary America.

Transcendentalism as a movement

The origins of the transcendentalist movement date back roughly to the 1830s. Geographically, the movement was mostly situated in the New England region of the United States. These two facts provide the context, which is pivotal in interpreting and explaining the purpose and the goals of the movement.

In the 1830s and onward, New England was the most economically progressive region of the United States. Textile mills were thriving and the region was key to the industrial revolution in the United States. The rapid growth of textile manufacturing in New England caused a shortage of workers and also changed the structure of the society. Thousands of farm girls left rural areas and family farms to work long hours in textile mills to support their families and widen their horizons. Immigration was steadily increasing. Urban centers faced a population boom and eventually New England became the most literate and most educated region in the country.[1]

However, due to these social and structural changes, some argued that American society was becoming increasingly materialistic and detached from its own spirituality. Perry Miller argues in The American Transcendentalists that the movement was “the first outcry of the heart against the materialistic pressures of a business civilization. Protestant to the core, they [the transcendentalists] turn their protest against what is customarily called the ‘Protestant ethic’: they refuse to labor in a proper calling, conscientiously cultivate the arts of leisure, and strive to avoid making money.”[2] Some even claim that New England’s “radical working-class movement must be seen as the motive force behind Transcendentalism”.[3]

Others argue that the transcendentalists were a “circle of intellectual revolutionaries who rooted out the last vestiges of Puritan conformity and birthed the long-awaited self-creating Individual.”[4] The transcendentalists helped shape the American, self-reliant individual and the narrative, which still surrounds American individualism today.[5] In fact, many scholars praise transcendentalism for creating the first uniquely American literary movement and style of writing, without being influenced by British cultural heritage. The reason for this may be the fact that the transcendentalists were dealing with uniquely American topics –the changes and state of American society and institutions and the raw nature of New England.

The foundations for the transcendentalist movement are considered to have been set by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Nature, published in 1836. In this essay, Emerson claims that man can only understand reality through studying nature. He states that man doesn’t fully accept nature’s beauty and all that it has to offer. The relationship of man and nature is not reciprocal: while nature gives back to man, people are distracted by the (man-created) world around them and ignore or disregard nature.

According to Emerson, nature is perfectly suitable for man; however, man must take himself away from the flaws and distractions of the society, and create “wholeness” with nature. Emerson believes that solitude is the only way man can fully adhere to what nature has to offer. “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society.”[6] As a senior Harvard scholar, Henry David Thoreau took Emerson’s essay to heart and it is clear and evident that it essentially influenced his life and literary career.

The transcendentalists were thus a social and philosophical movement, sharply responding to the contemporary social order with its spirit of commerce, competitive institutions (political parties), and moral and spiritual dullness. Their collective voice was shaped in The Dial, a journal edited by Margaret Fuller and they engaged in numerous social and ideological experiments (e.g. Brook Farm, Thoreau’s hermit life) to prove that the only way to redeem society was to get back in touch with the divinely ordained laws of nature.

The role of nature in Thoreau’s thought

“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.”[7] Distilled to its primary essence, this was Thoreau’s reason to escape society for a period of two years and live his life in harmony with nature. However, the idea to live in a hut in the woods was allegedly not his own.

In 1845, Thoreau was experiencing an intellectual crisis. He was more than ever determined to show his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, that his earlier confidence in him was not misplaced and that he was capable of producing a major literary work. However, most of Thoreau’s work did not yet receive much critical acclaim. It was transcendentalist poet William Ellery Channing, who suggested to Thoreau that a solution to his problem may be to build a cabin in the middle of the woods and live there for some time and write about his perceptions.[8] Thoreau seemed to enjoy the idea and soon demanded Emerson if he could live on a piece of land owned by Emerson at the Walden Pond. In exchange, Thoreau promised to clear the land and plant pines on it. Emerson was happy to agree and the construction of Thoreau’s cottage began in March 1845.

The literary work, which Thoreau elaborated at the Walden Pond, became the symbol of transcendental writing and his most renowned work. Surrounded by vibrant nature, Thoreau found himself in an atmosphere most suitable for his writing. Walden is not a lyrical depiction of the nature around Walden Pond – it is rather a study of the relation between man and nature in a general metaphysical sense. Also, it is a study of the inner-self and spirituality. Walden fits perfectly into the transcendentalist canon – by immersing himself in nature, Thoreau hoped to gain a more objective understanding of society through personal introspection. In Walden, he achieved personal autarky, which was also the aim of George Ripley’s Brook Farm, and it corresponded with Emerson’s “self-reliance”.


The site of Thoreau’s cabin near Walden Pond

A major reason for Thoreau’s experiment at Walden was specifically to seek total involvement in the natural world, to “have intelligence with the earth”, so that one may come full to terms with the part of oneself, which is “leaves and vegetable mould”.[9] Thoreau believed that if man were more connected with nature, his life would be more spiritually rewarding. Nature is not there solely for its beauty and resources; nature is a divine tool for man to realize and perceive his own self-consciousness. In Walden, he attempted to reveal the vital energy beneath the surface of the earth and unite the physical with the metaphysical by demonstrating the interdependency of spiritual aspiration and physical energy.

Yet, Emerson was not necessarily persuaded by Thoreau’s visions. In a notebook entry he complained: “Henry pitched his tone very low in his love of nature, – not on stars & suns…but tortoises, crickets, muskrats, suckers, toads & frogs. It was impossible to go lower.”[10]

Thoreau and solitude

Solitude was key for Thoreau to explore his relation to nature. In this context, however, from a semantic perspective, it is important not to exchange the word “solitude” for “loneliness”. Solitude, for Thoreau, is a non-emotional state of the mind. Solitude is the freedom of thought from any societal influence; while loneliness is an emotional state of mind from which a certain form of sadness emanates. A man who needs social distraction to dissipate his worries and fears feels “lonely” when he is not in the company of others. A man seeking to solve his problems by self-scrutiny and deep contemplation does not feel “lonely” – he seeks solitude, so that social distractions do not perturb his thoughts. In a Walden chapter named “Solitude”, Thoreau writes, “I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude, but once, and that was a few weeks after I came to the woods, when, for an hour, I doubted if the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life.”[11]

Thoreau’s solitude should not be mistaken for aloofness – “detachment from the particulars allows a more general engagement, a clear focus on matters that the rest of humanity has lost sight of.”[12]

Any loneliness in Thoreau’s mind is mitigated by his perception of double consciousness. It is quite problematic to determine whether Thoreau was faced with the Faustian problem of being torn between his earthly lusts and spiritual strivings. The transcendentalists were all dualists (they strived to reconcile the natural and intellectual side of man), yet all yearned for absolute unity.[13] In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau claims that a man, who thinks he is lost, should “conclude that after all he is not lost, he is not beside himself, but standing in his own old shoes on the very spot where he is.”[14] This claim implies that man cannot stand “beside” himself, since he has a unified soul; nevertheless, Thoreau continues and states “I am not alone if I stand by myself” – this claim may, in fact, imply that man has a duplex soul, which keeps him company and thereby man is doubly self-reliant.

Through his solitude, meditation and self-scrutiny, Thoreau has achieved what Baruch Spinoza labeled as the “truest Good”: the “knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of Nature”[15]. Indeed, this was Thoreau’s chief objective; meanwhile he also set a perfect example of the Emersonian self-reliance. For Thoreau and his experiment, solitude was the ultimate means to reach a point of reintegration of oneself – internally and with the surrounding physical and metaphysical influences.

Civil disobedience

Thoreau’s political thought is no less interesting and important than his transcendentalist philosophy. In July 1846, while still living at Walden Pond, Thoreau ran into a local tax collector who asked him to pay six years of delinquent poll taxes. Thoreau immediately refused, since he opposed the war against Mexico, in which the United States was engaged since April 1846. Thoreau reckoned that the tax he would pay would be used to finance the war, which was, in his eyes, by no means legitimate. Consequently, Thoreau spent a night in jail and was set free when his aunt, against his wishes, allegedly paid his taxes.[16]

This experience had a strong impact on Thoreau and two years after leaving Walden Pond he published the famous essay Resistance to Civil Government. Thoreau was not only disgusted with the Mexican-American war, but also with slavery; therefore, in this essay, he argued that individuals should not permit governments to overrule or influence their consciousness, and that man has a duty to avoid and hinder the attempts of governments to intrude in his thoughts and actions, which are free and bound only by nature. This claim is obviously linked to the transcendentalist perception of the self-reliant individual and is best summarized by Thomas Paine’s famous assertion (which Thoreau uses in the opening of the essay) “That government is best which governs least”.

Thoreau also claims that governments are rather harmful than helpful, thereby their legitimacy is hardly justified. The government was primarily an agent of corruption and injustice. Henry Thoreau was neither an advocate of democracy, as he claimed that majorities simply by virtue of being majorities do not also gain the virtues of wisdom and justice.

In today’s political terms, one might label Thoreau a libertarian for his emphasis on small government and civil freedom. His unwillingness to pay poll taxes and the consequent imprisonment were an exemplary case of his concept of individual, non-violent resistance to government. As mentioned earlier in this paper, Civil Disobedience influenced many public figures and philosophers. The continuity of Thoreau’s influence is still visible in present-day America – however, it is not just Thoreau’s political thought that maintained its resonance. His philosophy in Walden and the transcendentalist concept of self-reliance may be an important reference point in times of economic crisis.

The relevance of Thoreau for the 21st century

In his time, Henry Thoreau believed that the poet and the writer serve as “beacons of natural health and wholesome sentiments in a world diseased by the rising tide of urbanization, industrialization, and class conflict under capitalism.”[17] None of these “diseases” have disappeared from the face of 21st century-America and it would be most interesting to envision Thoreau’s reaction to the modern world, where everything he opposed in the 19th century persisted at an even grander scale. The connection of man (at least in the “developed world”) and nature seems to be hanging by a thread, environmental degradation is mercilessly driven by economic interests and most governments are still (as Thoreau mentioned in 1849) the “agents of corruption and injustice”.

However, these problems may be the explanation to why (most) Americans are still fascinated by Thoreau’s writing. Walden seems to be a timeless classic – the relationship between man and nature will always be a riddle for every individual. The materialistic world does not respond to every need of Homo sapiens; it is especially the spiritual side of man, which is being overshadowed by social distractions. Henry Thoreau provides a clear advice on how to please our spiritual side through nature. As Perry Miller notes: “I rejoice when told in the lower echelons of Wall Street there are young executives who, once they have contrived through the rush hour to reach their ranch-type homes in Scarsdale, mix a bit of Thoreau with their martinis.”[18]


Replica of Thoreau’s hermit cabin and his statue

Joel Porte argues that Walden is at the very heart an experiment of self-discovery – this makes the book so American and ever-relevant for the American society. “Americans,” he asserts, “are withdrawing and self-scrutinizing people.” This tradition is a part of the heritage, perhaps of Puritan origin, of intense spiritual examination, “which makes the confession, the diary, the journal and the autobiography, such important forms in American writing.”[19]

As Thoreau during the Mexican-American war, many Americans lost faith in their government after the invasion of Iraq and the ever-lasting war in Afghanistan. The economic crisis and increasing public debt in the United States may be the cause for more self-reliance and a more modest life, where material goods are, in part, substituted by spiritual fulfillment. Perhaps it is time for more Americans (and Europeans) to “mix a bit of Thoreau with their martinis.”

[1] Historical Census Data for 1850, University of Virginia. All data available at (accessed April 24, 2012).

[2] Miller, Perry, The American Transcendentalists, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 1981, p. ix.

[3] Newman, Lance, Our Common Dwelling: Henry Thoreau, Transcendentalism, and the Class Politics of Nature, Palgrave MacMillan, Gordonsville, VA, 2005, p.43.

[4]Op.cit., p.35.

[5] The concept of the self-reliant individual was set by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay Self-reliance, published in 1841.

[6] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Nature, 1836. Available at I (accessed April 24, 2012).

[7] Thoreau, Henry David, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, 1854. Available at (accessed April 24, 2012).

[8] Packer, Barbara L., The Transcendentalists, University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA, 2007, p. 183.

[9] Porte, Joel, Consciousness and Culture: Emerson and Thoreau Reviewed, YaleUniversity Press, New Haven, CT, 2004, p. 7.

[10] Op. cit. p. 10.

[11] Thoreau, Henry David, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, 1854.

[12] Newman, Lance, Our Common Dwelling, p. 87.

[13] Porte, Joel, Consciousness and Culture, p. 4.

[14] Thoreau, Henry David, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 1849. Available at (accessed April 25, 2012).

[15] Porte, Joel, Consciousness and Culture, p. 155.

[16] Rosenwald, Lawrence, “The Theory, Practice & Influence of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience” in Cain, William (ed.), A Historical Guide to Henry David Thoreau, Oxford University Press, Cambridge, 2006. Available at (accessed April 25, 2012).

[17] Newman, Lance, Our Common Dwelling, p. 87.

[18] Porte, Joel, Consciousness and Culture, p. 144.

[19] Op. cit. p. 149.