More on Thoreau

Lecturette from the second and final session of a adult RE class on Thoreau — typos and all.

At the end of last week’s session, you asked me to address a number of points about Henry David Thoreau. In no particular order, you asked me to talk about the following:

(1) Thoreau’s notion of civil disobedience
(2) How Thoreau was affected by Eastern religions
(3) The circle of writers and thinkers who came and went in the town of Concord during Thoreau’s life
(4) Why Thoreau left his Unitarian church, and place his departure in the context of wider trends in Unitarianism
(5) Thoreau’s later influence on Unitarianism, and then on Unitarian Universalism

(1) Thoreau’s notion of civil disobedience

Thoreau was a Transcendentalist. He has been accused of being a Transcendentalist because the term was so vague that it didn’t commit him to anything, but I don’t think that’s fair. Thoreau may be considered a Transcendentalist insofar as he affirmed that individuals are able to have some kind of direct intuition of truth; and insofar as he used the assumption of Romanticism about the importance of the individual.

As someone who affirmed that individuals could directly intuit truth, Thoreau was resistant to the notion that you could learn truth by relying on authority. Thoreau said that there are what he calls “higher laws” which may come into conflict with human-made laws. The Fugitive Slave Law would be an example of a human-made law that conflicts with the higher laws. Violating the Fugitive Slave Law may subject an individual to imprisonment or other punishment. However, violating the higher laws may cause an individual to become (as it were) less human.

When human-made laws come into conflict with higher laws, individuals really owe their true allegiance to the higher laws. That means that an individual could, in good conscience, violate the Fugitive Slave Laws. That individual may have to suffer the human punishment for the human-made laws, but that is preferable to diminishing oneself by violating the higher laws. This is, in essence, civil disobedience: disobeying the laws of the civil magistrates (that is, human-made laws) where such laws come into conflict with higher laws.

Thoreau had enough of the Romantic trust in the individual to believe that allowing civil disobedience would not plunge civil society into chaos. He famously said that that government governs best which governs least; he believes that individuals are more capable of governing themselves than are governments.

Martin Luther King, Jr., used Thoreau’s notion of civil disobedience in somewhat altered form. King, as a liberal Christian, emphasized that the “higher laws” were God’s laws; King obviously saw parallels between civil disobedience and certain stories in the Christian scriptures, such as the story about Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. King also drew from Mahatma Gandhi’s interpretation of civil disobedience. Gandhi learned the power of non-resistance from practical experience; King justified the principle of non-resistance based on his understanding of Jesus’s teachings in the Christian scriptures.

Both King and Gandhi knew that groups of people engaging in civil disobedience together in a coordinated way had great power. Thoreau seems to have missed this point. He was willing to make his point by going to jail for his principles, as he famously did. He was willing to participate actively in the Underground Railroad, which was a group action that flouted human-made laws in favor of higher laws. He was willing to write a powerful and persuasive essay on civil disobedience, which exhorted others to also engage in personal civil disobedience. But it was left to Gandhi and King to figure out how to build mass movements based on civil disobedience which could fundamentally change and revolutionize all of society.

(2) How Thoreau was affected by Eastern religions

Thoreau came to intellectual maturity at an interesting moment in Western religious history. By the late eighteenth century, the first English translations of non-Western religious texts began appearing. The Bhagavad Gita, for example, was first translated into English in 1785. Copies of these translations of non-Western religious texts began appearing in the United States in the early part of the nineteenth century.

When Thoreau and other Transcendentalists began reading these non-Western religious texts, they understood them as evidence that all persons can have direct insight into higher truths. This was a fairly radical thing to say in a culture that was still dominated by the notion that Christianity represented the highest possible truth. For his part, Thoreau seemed to feel that the non-Western religious texts were just as significant as the Christian scriptures; he tried not to give any special importance to Christianity.

It is worth noting here that Thoreau thought Nature was far more important than non-Western religious texts. Because of this and his interest in non-Western religions, Emerson and others sometimes affectionately referred to Thoreau as a “pagan,” that is, as someone who found religious inspiration outside of Christianity. Nevertheless, from our point of view today, Thoreau’s religious philosophy appears well within the bounds of liberal Christianity.

One final but very important point: Thoreau’s interest in non-Western religions was completely limited to non-Western religious texts. He showed little knowledge of, or interest in, non-Western religious practices. He appears to have had some familiarity with Native American religion, but his attitudes towards Native American religion was fairly patronizing. Beyond that, he knew and cared little about non-Western religious practices. It would not be until the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago that most Americans would have any real exposure to non-Western religious practices.

(3) The circle of writers and thinkers who came and went in the town of Concord during Thoreau’s life

Why was Concord such a literary Mecca during the mid-nineteenth century? It was all because of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In 1775, when the Battle of Concord took place, Emerson’s grandfather William Emerson was the minister of the Concord church (at that time, there was only one church in town). William Emerson died during the Revolution, and his widow married the next minister of the Concord church. When Waldo (he was called Waldo by his friends and family) was a boy, he spent some months living with in Concord; and his step-grandfather, Ezra Ripley, served as Concord’s minister for 63 years, and died there in 1841.

Emerson relocated to Concord after the death of his first wife, and when he remarried he brought his second wife there. Concord was something of an out-of-the-way place, but it was inexpensive to live there. As time went by, Emerson convinced fellow Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott to relocate to Concord. Emerson convinced the newly married Nathaniel Hawthorne to bring his new wife and live in Ezra Ripley’s old manse. Other minor Transcendentalists came through Concord, and some of them stayed for a few days or for years. The poet Jones Very, and the early feminist writer Margaret Fuller visited Emerson. The very minor poet Ellery Channing, nephew of William Ellery Channing, wound up living in Concord, and became Thoreau’s best friend. The Emerson house in Concord became a sort of pilgrimage spot for a generation of writers and minor writers and would-be writers.

Thoreau himself was actually born in Concord; he is the only Transcendentalist who didn’t come to Concord because of Emerson. Nevertheless, Emerson was a mentor of and close friend to Thoreau. Perhaps if Emerson had settled in another town, Thoreau would have been one of the would-be writers who made a pilgrimage to Emerson’s house. In any case, Thoreau became another one of the writers and thinkers who gathered loosely around Emerson.

Since Concord was a small town, and since Emerson was the hub around which all the literary life of Concord revolved, Thoreau would have had the opportunity to meet many of these writers. Certainly he knew Hawthorne and the Alcotts and Ellery Channing, and met many others. So Thoreau was exposed to far more writers than he would have been if he had lived in any other American town of comparable size.

As time went on, writers continued to be attracted to Concord. Although Emerson was the original attraction that drew writers to Concord, later on the legacies of Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott added a great deal of attraction on their own. Henry James, Sr., lived in Concord for a short time, so some Concord has some claim to Henry and William James. Today, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin lives in Concord, as do psychiatrist and author Robert Coles, bestselling author Robin Moore, who wrote The Green Berets, David Sibley, who writes nature guides, and several others.

(4) Why Thoreau left his Unitarian church, and place his departure in the context of wider trends in Unitarianism

Thoreau left Unitarianism for much the same reason that many Transcendentalists left Unitarianism. The Transcendentalists placed great importance on intuition, whereas traditional Unitarians placed more importance on the use of reason and the religious authority of the Bible. In addition, some Transcendentalists — and Thoreau was one — placed a high importance on individual conscience, and a low importance on religious institutions. Contrast these Transcendentalists with someone like Theodore Parker, who built a congregation that had over two thousand members at its peak.

But Thoreau was even more extreme than most other Transcendentalists. He was not just a poor institutionalist, he was an anti-institutionalist. He seems to have been unable to cope with most institutions. The town of Concord hired him as a schoolteacher, and when he was told that he should use corporal punishment, he randomly beat several children, and then stormed out of the classroom and quit. While he certainly made a dramatic gesture, his actions also seem destructive and pointless. This seems to be the way he dealt with human institutions: he liked to make dramatic gestures that criticized and denounced institutions, but he was not able to work with others to actually transform those institutions. In this sense, we might consider him a true Romantic.

(5) Thoreau’s later influence on Unitarianism, and then on Unitarian Universalism

Thoreau had little apparent influence on Unitarianism, except as a sort of sidekick of Emerson. But this is not surprising, for Thoreau was mostly ignored through most of the nineteenth century, and it wasn’t until the middle of the twentieth century that his reputation really took off.

After the Unitarians consolidated with the Universalists in 1961 to form Unitarian Universalism, we begin to see more influence of Thoreau on our movement. Many Unitarian Universalists were involved in the Civil Rights movement, so Dr. King’s use of Thoreau’s thinking on civil disobedience helped raise his reputation among us. Thoreau is the patron saint of environmentalism, and so when we Unitarian Universalists became environmentalists, Thoreau gained more influence among us. And we have become wary of institution-building — some Unitarian Universalists are even anti-institutionalists — which has led some of us to become even more fond of him.

Did Thoreau influence Unitarian Universalism, or did we merely adopt him as someone who confirmed views we already held? I just don’t know, although I suspect the latter is the case: we adopted him as one of our own because he confirmed things we already believed in.

However, we Unitarian Universalists have been selective in our adoption of Thoreau. While we rightly celebrate his work on the Underground Railroad, we have mostly ignored his nineteenth century racism. While we like his religious naturalism, that is his religious lack of interest in the supernatural, we have all too often ignored his Romantic challenges to reason and rationality. And while his writings are filled with references to his experiences of religious ecstasy, we generally refuse to have anything to do with religious ecstasy.

In short, we pick and choose what we like in Thoreau; and it is not clear just how much influence he has had on us.

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