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The Political Thought of Henry David ThoreauPrivatism and the Practice of Philosophy$

Jonathan McKenzie

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780813166308

Published to Kentucky Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813166308.001.0001

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Life near the Bone

Life near the Bone

(p.79) 3 Life near the Bone
The Political Thought of Henry David Thoreau

Jonathan McKenzie

University Press of Kentucky

Abstract and Keywords

Thoreau’s Walden Pond experience is, at least in part, an individualistic response to the popular communal living experiments of the 1840s in the United States. This chapter examines one key aspect of those experiments—the desire to unify the self—in light of Thoreau’s successes and failures in his own living experiment. This chapter argues that Thoreau’s privatist political theory, which provides the backbone for the Walden sojourn, aids Thoreau in maintaining the goal of providing a sound foundation for a unified experience of selfhood in the changing nineteenth century.

Keywords:   Thoreau, Walden, Brook Farm, Fruitlands, Communalism

But one might say, in another paradox, that Walden’s triumphant success is precisely what constitutes its defeat. For underlying that triumph is a forsaking of civic aspirations for an exclusive concern with “the art of living well.”

  —Michael T. Gilmore, American Romanticism and the Marketplace1

It is rather derogatory that your dwelling-place should be only a neighborhood to a great city—to live on an inclined plane. I do not like their cities and forts, with their morning and evening guns, and sails flapping in one’s eye. I want a whole continent to breathe in, and a good deal of solitude and silence, such as all Wall Street cannot buy.

  —Thoreau, Familiar Letters2

In the letter quoted above, a young Thoreau dismisses his time in Staten Island, finding himself longing for his provincial home. That Thoreau spends a period of mere months living outside of Massachusetts is not altogether remarkable, but the way he phrases his desire is. Thoreau writes his desire in an ironic way, first positing that the expanse of the city abhors him but that he wishes to have a “whole continent” to breathe in. The whole continent, for Thoreau, is mentioned in the conclusion to Walden: “Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought.”3 Thoreau further clarifies his advice, admonishing the reader to “explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone.”4 Sherman Paul refers to these quotations representing Thoreau’s “inward exploration,” and we see the importance Thoreau places on exploration when he makes the following remark: “Obey the precept of the old philosopher, and Explore thyself.”5 Thoreau amends the famous Socratic (p.80) dictum that one know thyself and instead suggests the action of exploration, without claiming to supersede Socrates’s advice. Thoreau is merely arguing that exploration is the means to knowledge, and that the only type of knowledge worth having is that which concerns the self. Thoreau concludes Walden with the push to explore oneself in order to know oneself comprehensively, to avoid only a partial knowledge of the self.

Thoreau asks us to “be / Expert in home-cosmography,” advice that he believes constitutes the central message of Walden.6 Thoreau’s provincialism is strategically placed within an argument that one take a wider view of the universe. Thoreau alerts us, in the conclusion to Walden, to what he has shown us throughout the text: that the universe and the self are one—or, to make the point more explicitly, that the self is a universe.7 Thus, Thoreau couches his provincialism not as a contraction of the self but as an expansion of the self to the point of connection with (and as) the universe. One strong message of Walden, then, is to expand oneself by contracting the space in which one operates ethically.

Walden’s provincial philosophy cements Thoreau as one of the foremost philosophers of the village in modern thought. Walden is in many ways a testament to the border life, the immersion in the sights, sounds, and visions of the small town and its natural surroundings. Another provincial philosopher of modernity, Martin Heidegger, also consistently defends his village life, arguing that the whole of his philosophy is constructed out of a border life in a remote village. In a remarkable article from 1934, Heidegger explains his living choices in “Why Do I Stay in the Provinces?” The language and description in the brief piece compare favorably with Thoreau’s in Walden, and we receive a picture of a provincial life that defends itself from its absorption in the work of philosophy and the work of ecology:

This is my work-world…. Strictly speaking myself I never observe the landscape. I experience its hourly changes, day and night, in the great comings and goings of the seasons. The gravity of the mountains and the hardness of their primeval rock, the slow and deliberate growth of the fir-trees, the brilliant, simple splendor of the meadows in bloom, the rush of the mountain brook in the long autumn night … all of this moves and flows through and penetrates daily existence up there, and not in forced moments of “aesthetic” immersion or artificial empathy, but only when one’s own existence stands in its work.8

(p.81) Identifying the Black Forest as his “work-world,” Heidegger dissolves the subject/object relationship between himself and the world by dichotomizing his experience with the pitifully minimal aesthetic experience of the “observer.” Heidegger’s major focus here is on creating a new understanding of his surroundings, arguing that he never “observes” the landscape but instead experiences “its hourly changes.” Heidegger defends provincial life as a place of settling, pushing its advantages beyond the picture postcard toward a reoriented consciousness of the self within its place. Heidegger argues not that he becomes his landscape, but that the landscape’s transformations are experienced by him.

Heidegger continues: “On a deep winter’s night when a wild, pounding snowstorm rages around the cabin and veils and covers everything, that is the perfect time for philosophy. Then its questions become simple and essential.”9 Thoreau performs a similar arc in Walden, maintaining that his credentials as one who belongs near the pond, immersed in the woods, establish the ground on which he can construct a workable philosophy. He notes in the conclusion, “We need the tonic of wildness—to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadowhen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe…. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild…. We can never have enough of nature.”10 Heidegger and Thoreau alert us to the necessity of nonhuman space to the practice of philosophy; we must first encounter life as a problem, a genuine (dare we say “natural”) problem of existence, prior to philosophizing. The Heideggerian snow-storm presents a problem situation from which philosophy must dig out an answer; the Thoreauvian marsh exhibits the reorienting sense of wonder in which we wade with questions of being.

Heidegger’s preference for his provincial cabin allows for a kind of work that strips off the partiality of urban life commitments: “People in the city often wonder whether one gets lonely up in the mountains among the peasants for such long and monotonous periods of time. But it isn’t loneliness, it is solitude. In large cities one can easily be as lonely as almost nowhere else. But one can never be in solitude there. Solitude has the peculiar and original power not of isolating us but of projecting our whole existence out into the vast nearness of the presence of all things.”11

Heidegger’s rethinking of solitude establishes the village as a space for encouraging a wider understanding of things. It is only in the mountains (p.82) (or in the woods, or near the pond) that one can answer the question, as Thoreau’s hermit does in the first section of “Brute Neighbors,” “I wonder what the world is doing now.”12 The hermit finds himself in solitude, “as near being resolved into the essence of things as ever I was in my life.”13 In fact, if we glance at the “Brute Neighbors” chapter, we see Thoreau, in solitude, describing encounters with (wild) mice, a phoebe, a robin, a partridge, an otter, a raccoon, a woodcock, ants (in battle), cats, a loon (cunning in its hiding), and ducks. Thoreau describes these “neighbors” as part of the essence of things, answering the question at the beginning of the chapter: “Why do precisely these objects which we behold make a world?”14

On first reading, Heidegger’s essay presents itself as the self-defensive compensations of a village malcontent, a judgment often thrown at Thoreau for Walden as well. Instead, what we find upon further reading is the yearning to justify village life not to the city, but to the projects that construct a valuable life: simplicity, independence, work: “Let us stop all this condescending familiarity and sham concern for ‘folk-character’ and let us learn to take seriously that simple, rough existence up there.”15 Thoreau’s Walden can be read the same way, as the laboring of an individual attempting to reintegrate himself into a series of values exclusive to border life, identifying the work, freedom, and completeness offered through village life. One of Walden’s major purposes, then, is to establish the value of provincialism. Thoreau accomplishes this particular task by identifying a core concern of philosophy since Plato: completion or wholeness in the soul. Walden defends Thoreau’s choice of using his environment to develop a sense of wholeness of the soul. Identifying the problem of indebtedness as a constraint on wholeness, Thoreau connects his philosophy with Stoic concerns and presents Walden as a philosophical defense of wholeness updated to the nineteenth century.

Thoreau’s Incidental Stoicism

In a journal entry from July 6, 1840, Thoreau offers an evaluative criterion for his daily writing exercises: “Let the daily tide leave some deposit on these pages, as it leaves sand and shells on the shore. So much increase of terra firma. This may be a calendar of the ebbs and flows of the soul; and on these sheets as a beach, the waves may cast up pearls and seaweed.”16 There are several interesting movements in the reflection, beginning with the mixture of sea metaphors (the daily tide) and writing metaphors (using “leave” as a verb (p.83) but reminding us of its employment as page). When we examine the passage, we find that Thoreau is describing the process of journaling. The daily tide—that is, the day’s events in their ebbing and flowing—is effectively writing the journal itself. Thoreau’s engagement in early journaling, developed here through the understanding that the tide itself leaves—that is, creates pages—suggests a phenomenological approach to the apprehension of daily intercourse. Thoreau recognizes that his journal is a remnant of a “casting up” of both pearls and seaweed, and his consciousness of its mixed quality reinforces its phenomenological character. Thoreau refuses to compromise the contents of the journal, according to this early entry, because his goal is to report on the wholeness of his life by attending to its particulars.

On the previous day Thoreau writes of a desire to “go where we will discover infinite change in particulars only—not in generals.”17 Thoreau is directing us to understand the purpose behind his journal entries, particularly those that suggest mere reporting. Look at three examples from the July/August 1840 Journal: “As I picked blackberries this morning by starlight, the distant yelping of a dog fell on my inward ear, as the cool breeze on my cheek.”18 “Any melodious sound apprises me of the infinite wealth of God.”19 “It behooves us to make our life a steady progression and not be defeated by its opportunities.”20

I do not choose these passages for their remarkable nature or for their representation of Thoreau’s Journal (each written within a period of one month), but because they supply us with a key to interpreting the movement of Thoreau’s journal writing. The first entry appears to fall into the category of reporting, but a deeper reading demonstrates that Thoreau is experiencing a lesson he will incorporate into his understanding of doing philosophy. If we pay attention to Thoreau’s surroundings, we find that he is picking blackberries by sunlight, making the Concord woods his “work-world” in Heidegger’s sense, and preparing himself for the hearing that will take place. Thoreau’s reward for his philosophical preparation is the faint sound of a yelping dog, which may appear to us a poor reward, indeed.

If we turn to Thoreau’s Walden, however, we find that the purpose of philosophical education is to prepare ourselves to listen to our surroundings: “So many autumn, ay, and winter days, spent outside the town, trying to hear what was in the wind, to hear and carry it express! I well-nigh sunk all my capital in it.”21 Thoreau spends his days trying to hear what is in the wind (in this case, the yelping dog), so that he can carry it express (both a (p.84) jab at letter-carrying services and a reminder of his hope to proclaim what he hears to others). The passage gains importance when we see that already, in 1840, Thoreau is trying to hear what is in the wind (the yelping falls on his ear like the breeze upon his cheek). To clarify the meaning of the short passage, Thoreau offers contextualization in the latter two passages. In the second passage, we find that any “melodious sound” triggers a representation of God’s bounty—that is, of the abundance, creative capacity, and sufficiency of nature. In the third quote, Thoreau applies the first two to the project of the Journal itself—a philosophical search for wholeness that settles on unearthing particulars and amplifying the educational and existential potential of everyday life.

Thoreau’s journal entries alert us to the understanding that hearing is an important way of doing philosophy: “When the accents of wisdom and eloquence have died away—I discover that the chirp of the crickets is still clear in advance.”22 Thoreau’s philosophizing is met with a profound skepticism toward philosophy’s traditional mannerisms, recognizing the infinite supply of nature’s sounds as sure to outlast the temporary fashion of schools of understanding. Borrowing from a quote attributed to Thales, Thoreau writes in the Journal: “To Thales is attributed the saying—‘It is hard, but good, to know oneself; virtue consists in leading a life conformable to nature.’”23 Four days later Thoreau writes, “Social yearnings unsatisfied are the temporalness of time.”24 Thoreau’s satisfaction with nature’s conformity opposes itself to the idea of one’s social desires, which, when unsatisfied, make one feel time in a unique way. In fact, Thoreau suggests that social desires are the manifestation of time’s dominion over the self. This interesting way of opposing nature and society supplies Thoreau with one of the major philosophical purposes of the Walden Pond excursion and the subsequent book: to discover the ways in which the self overemphasizes partial components of its life at the expense of the soul. Thoreau’s desire to make nature manifest in himself, in this sense, reads like Epictetus’s effort to take nature seriously as a concept and principle that allows one to remain one’s own.

In the opening paragraphs of the Discourses, Epictetus offers this very interesting counsel: “Only consider at what price you sell your freedom of will. If nothing else, man, at least don’t sell it cheap.”25 Epictetus’s constant concern with the freedom of the will grounds his Stoic philosophy, offering a terminus for his practices of rooting unnecessary desire and attention from individual life. What Epictetus does in this specific passage, however, (p.85) is introduce indebtedness as an important philosophical concept. How does one “sell” one’s freedom of will? In this case one makes oneself indebted to projects, hopes, pursuits, or desires beyond one’s capacity to realize. Epictetus, as philosopher of freedom, alerts individuals to the constraints—artificial and natural—on their desire to accomplish their nature. The concern with debts moves beyond philosophy to the practice of life, as Epictetus critiques those who indebt themselves economically to a variety of doomed projects (large homes, fine clothes, expensive habits). These individuals indebt themselves to their own desires, but, more importantly, their desires indebt them to serve another at the expense of their own freedom. This space between indebtedness and freedom in both Epictetus and Thoreau’s Walden is the topic of this chapter.

Epictetus’s counsel seems familiar to those who follow Thoreau’s critique of work in the opening pages of Walden. The Roman Stoic position of identifying the boundaries of personal freedom via a series of practical exercises in evaluating life echoes in Thoreau’s Walden, as we can see from a very similar passage: “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”26 Thoreau’s perpetual consideration of the costs of life is what originally leads him to move to Walden Pond from 1845 to 1847; at this point the young Thoreau has lived his life either with his parents or with Emerson and, having few prospects for venturing out on his own, aims to build his own home through means he can afford.27 But the cost of, as Epictetus terms them, “externals” is what truly animates Thoreau’s philosophy in Walden. Thoreau’s taxonomy of life, in which he places under the name of false necessities fashion, elegant food, news, politics, base friendships, and so forth, carries a strong ethos of practicing the privatist politics of authentic selfhood in nineteenth-century America.

Epictetus’s Socratic philosophy draws primarily from Socrates’s invulnerability, which Epictetus forms into a theory of freedom.28 Epictetus threads Socratic invulnerability into a theory of what Christopher Gill calls “psychophysical holism” that promotes a structured self that orients its freedom on its capacity to withstand temptation: “He is free who lives as he wills, who is subject neither to compulsion, nor hindrance, nor force, whose choices are unhampered, whose desires attain their end, whose aversions do not fall into what they would avoid.”29

Epictetus envisions every psychic or physical act of commitment to a (p.86) project outside the scope of one’s own well-reasoned life as a clipping of the self, detaching part of the self’s originary wholeness to an external ideal. For Epictetus, one’s life commitments are tested in everyday existence, primarily through the luxuries that facilitate civilized life: “Is it not true that the more softly the lion lives the more slavishly he lives?”30 Epictetus’s practice of philosophy as a constant watch over the self’s commitments reminds us of Thoreau’s counsel toward the beginning of “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”: “As long as possible live free and uncommitted.”31

Both Thoreau and Epictetus develop a Socratic philosophy of freedom that privileges the wholeness of soul. Epictetus asks, “Your farm, is it under your control to have it when you want, and as long as you want, and in the condition that you want?”32 Similarly, Thoreau writes that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”33 In this sense, Thoreau and Epictetus mimic what Socrates develops as essential to the existential practice of philosophical principles: invulnerability, loose commitments, and voluntary poverty. Each of these measures is undertaken to insulate the soul against the enchanting offers of external ideals. Epictetus rails against compulsion, while Thoreau aims his sword at desperation; in each case, to be sure, we see the recounting of the Socratic character.

Experiments in Wholeness

Thoreau’s Walden traverses a number of disparate themes, each providing entrée into the comprehensive philosophy of life developed within the pages of his masterwork. In this chapter, I choose to concentrate on a theme prevalent throughout the work: Thoreau’s existential investigation of what constitutes a non-desperate life. Thoreau’s search for an alternative value structure for personal conduct is not unique in his time; indeed, Thoreau occupies an important space within the first genuine American reform movements of the early to mid-nineteenth century. Thoreau’s type of reform—which is, more often than not, not reform at all—provides later commentators with considerable moral trouble. His desire to build a cabin near Walden Pond and spend two years hoeing beans and writing A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is the more troubling because of its contemporary counterparts: the utopian small communities of the 1840s, with high aims and complex reorganizations of social institutions. Thoreau was more than familiar with the communitarian utopian movements: two of the most famous, George (p.87) and Sophia Ripley’s Brook Farm and Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane’s Fruitlands were transcendentalist reform ideals placed into practice. Thoreau’s sojourn occupies a similar space.

Thoreau’s Walden experiment shares more in common with Brook Farm and Fruitlands than mere historical interest. Walden and the Brook Farm and Fruitlands experiments aim toward recreating an agrarian ideal that is fading from fashion, being replaced by the young cosmopolitanism of easier travel and frequent newspapers. Thoreau’s Walden, with its persistent reference to the railroad, its interspersed conversations with those trying to make a living out of the new rules of alienated labor, and its forceful opening chapter, “Economy,” aims to recover a self-sufficient ideal that is vanishing due to the thrust of business and the individual’s misplaced sense of necessity. Similarly, Brook Farm aims to restore the dignity of individual life by reconnecting the complete individual through labor of the body and the mind, and Fruitlands reorganizes social life around the stripped-down ideals of necessity in food, drink, clothing, and shelter. Thoreau’s experiment in personal purification aims to shun the new realities of economic modernization and mass democracy, and Brook Farm and Fruitlands build themselves on similar principles.

Brook Farm and Fruitlands: The Problem of Partiality in Transcendentalism

A recent renaissance in the scholarly treatment of the utopian community movement in the nineteenth century has, unfortunately, not been accompanied by an analysis of these movements’ political ideas. The communitarian movement was not an offspring of any political party, as Whigs and Democrats alike partook of the movement without much difficulty or infighting.34 But there is much in these movements that speaks of a theory of politics, a particularly American theme of the limitations of politics as a means of social change. Carl Guarneri’s richly detailed history of the utopian socialist movement, The Utopian Alternative, argues that communitarian movements and the transcendentalist spirit of Emerson provide competing social theories of the United States: “As a system of ideas, American Fourierism stood near the very center of the antebellum debate over the future of the Republic…. In the North, Emerson and other writers developed the concepts of ‘self-reliance,’ ‘individualism,’ and ‘free labor’ in explicit opposition to the utopian socialist challenge.”35

(p.88) Guarneri’s focus is on the adaptation of Fourierism from France to the United States, where, as a totalizing system of knowledge and social organization, it becomes a social-scientific community, expressly defined and minutely organized to optimize the tendencies of individual character types and social expectations. Though Brook Farm transitions to Fourierism in 1844, as a sort of last-ditch effort to gain funding, and Fruitlands never makes the transition, being wholly opposed to the specifics of Fourierism, the opposition between communitarian living and self-reliance remains vivid and fitting. Thoreau, alongside Emerson, finds himself at odds with how the new America—sovereign, powerful, and expanding—will reconcile itself with its lofty expectations.

Brook Farm

Although not the first utopian community in the United States, Brook Farm is perhaps the most famous. Founded in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, in the spring of 1841 by George Ripley, a former Unitarian minister and member of the Hedge Club of early American transcendentalists, and Sophia Ripley, educator and early transcendentalist, Brook Farm holds the loftiest of aims. Noting a split between the work of the hands and the work of the mind, Ripley and others attempt to suture the intellectual and manual labors of human beings into a new vision of wholeness via a self-sustaining community. Regaining completion amidst the fracturing of oncoming capitalism and the literal fracturing of the northern and southern United States is a major theme in transcendentalist thought. In a letter to Emerson during the autumn of 1840, Ripley argues that Brook Farm aims to “insure a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor than now exists; to combine the thinker and the worker, as far as possible, in the same individual; to guarantee the highest mental freedom, by providing all with labor … to do away with the necessity of menial services, by opening the benefits of education and the profits of labor to all.”36

Many of Ripley’s themes—completion of the self, relations between self and nature, the honesty of pure labor, freedom from necessity—are highlights of Thoreau’s sojourn at Walden Pond as well. The transcendentalist ethos of the time—to remake the world—focuses on the aspects of individual life undergoing dramatic change at the time, particularly hired labor. One could argue convincingly (as Richard Francis does) that the purpose of (p.89) the transcendental utopias is simply to solve the question of early capitalism’s transformation of the laborer to the worker.37

Suturing the disparate parts of the individual into a complete self is buttressed by the fixation across transcendentalist thought that the universal exists within the particular, though our emphasis on particulars sometimes eclipses the universal from our purview.38 The most striking passage of Emerson’s “The American Scholar,” for instance, captures the fracturing of individual life perfectly: “The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.”39 Emerson’s visual impact—the self as a part amputated from the whole, doing the work of the particular without the aid of the universal, a walking monster—crystallizes the horror and the seriousness of the question at hand. Individuals find themselves split from the originary wholeness that composes them—but what precisely is to blame for the split?

Guarneri argues that the utopian socialist movements respond primarily to the crisis of early capitalism: “Associationists sincerely believed their society to be at a critical turningpoint, when new competitive industrial and commercial forms had to be reshaped before they became permanently entrenched.”40 Clearly, Brook Farm organizers hold similar views, arguing that the time is ripe for reform in the United States, while the genesis of a new social and economic order is in its earliest stages. Brook Farm begins not with the Fourierist embrace of the material progress of nations, but with reorganization by reinventing an agrarian past of the unified self. Contrary to the Fourierists, transcendental American reform projects look consistently to the past—real or imagined—for inspiration in transforming the material conditions of present life. While Brook Farm relays the critique of early capitalism, it does so with joy—at least at first: “The farm offered a simple and basically comfortable life where members could pursue intellectual and spiritual growth, through either private studies or group activities such as reading circles, musical performances, and dramatic presentations. In contrast to many residents of Puritan Boston, members delighted in spontaneity and fun.”41

Brook Farm offers a solution to the fracturing of self by privileging labor of individual discretion. One can hardly underestimate the degree to which Brook Farm’s early popularity hinges on its free-spirited answer to the question of how one is to get a living. One can now, through the organization of (p.90) the farm, do the work one desires when one desires to do it. One must not amputate a part of oneself to dedicate to labor at the expense of the rest of the body and mind.

Of course, Brook Farm’s labor by discretion is not all smooth sailing. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, a novel recounting the time he spends at Brook Farm in 1841 and 1842, contains a series of curious passages from a group of young women, each of whom carries the excitement of the new venture but finds herself asking: “Have we our various parts assigned?”42 The question of labor is still open, even in Brook Farm’s utopia. Zenobia, a major figure in Hawthorne’s novel, quickly takes the mantle of defending the household labor of women, mirroring the reality of Brook Farm’s de facto sexual division of labor. While Sophia Ripley, cofounder of the farm, spends time as a teacher, this is hardly a novel form of labor for bright young women in the mid-nineteenth century; and, when Brook Farm makes the transition to a Fourierist “phalanx” in 1844, Sophia Ripley is named head of the “Domestic Series.”43 Hawthorne continually returns to the (lack of) intellectual or moral fruit yielded by his physical labor: shoveling manure. George Ripley, particularly in the later years, spends precious little time doing labor of any sort at the farm.44

Given the philosophical goal of suturing the self together with intellectual and manual labor, Brook Farm necessitates an ethos of equality in order to function along its aims. While the Ripleys heartily endeavor to make this so, the stubborn necessities of farm life bring forward a healthy crop of workers with no desire for the higher labor of intellectual exertion. What occurs can easily be foreseen, as the young Brook Farmer Sophia Eastman notes. “‘There is an aristocracy prevailing here,’ the seventeen- or eighteen-year old told her family right away, ‘and many complain of being neglected.’”45 By the summer of 1842, just a year into the Brook Farm experiment, the needs for skilled farm labor and for an influx of money create a class system: those who come for intellectual labor minus the headaches of traditional town life, and those who search the still-shaky economic landscape of the northern United States in search of physical labor opportunities. Brook Farm, more quickly than most would imagine, transitions from a lofty ideal of self-completion into a class system barely hanging on to its ideals.

Sterling Delano, whose Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia remains the best treatment of the community, writes this history as a tragedy, and rightly so. Brook Farm’s short history is one of always being on the brink, scrambling (p.91) for members and money. Brook Farm’s fateful decision to transition from anti-political agrarian utopia to Fourierist productive phalanx in 1844 is the death knell of the transcendental portion of the experiment.46 The quiet farm life becomes a desperate struggle to produce, sell, and ship. The phalanx mercifully meets its end in 1846, when the expensive and massive main building, still under construction, catches fire and burns to the ground.47 The question the tragedy of Brook Farm brings to the fore, however, is what precisely went wrong? Richard Francis makes the argument that “perhaps this verdict is just a cumbersome way of saying that, in the end, the Transcendentalist-Fourierist view was simply wrong. Nature was not organized in the way it was claimed.”48 Brook Farm represents a movement away from the burdens of early capitalism, crystallized as a splitting of the individual into its most productive parts—but are we correct to assume that the failure of Brook Farm signals the failure of structural reorganization of life along transcendentalist lines?


Brook Farm’s six-year existence stands up well in comparison with the life of Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane’s Fruitlands community. Fruitlands lasts only seven months, due to a mixture of infighting, money problems, little food, and Abigail Alcott’s decision to bring the community to a close via her brother, an important investor in the project.49 Fruitlands tells a story of an idealist stubbornly driven by his vision of the world, and the friends and relatives he can convince to share (and pay for) his dream. The inimitable Bronson Alcott, whose complex philosophy of vegetarian asceticism brings precious few followers, nonetheless represents another attempt to achieve transcendental completeness through a reorganization of social institutions. Alcott’s idiosyncrasies—wearing only homemade linen clothing, and refusing to use oxen to manage a ninety-acre farm, eating only vegetables that grow above ground—thereby “aiming toward heaven”—animate an extraordinary tragedy in the quest for completion of the self.

Fruitlands gets its start in the summer of 1843, when Alcott, freshly returned from a rejuvenating trip to England, and Charles Lane, an English admirer who makes the return trip to Massachusetts, search for a fit piece of land to begin a new utopian community. They settle on a ninety-acre farm near Concord, which they oddly christen “Fruitlands” (though it contains only a half dozen poorly bearing fruit trees). Despite his repudiation of (p.92) the concept of property, Lane purchases the farm for $1,800, using all of his money and a great deal more in loan. Alcott, penniless from an unsuccessful turn as a schoolteacher (his conversations with children, published in book format, cause a minor scandal) and farmer, nonetheless takes charge of the community, which consists of Alcott and his family; Lane and his ten-year-old son; Joseph Gardiner Wright (briefly); and a series of short-term visitors. Fruitlands is more openly political than Brook Farm, as Alcott is an avowed anarchist, and Lane offers an early and dense defense of libertarianism.50 In an early effort to attract members to the community, Alcott delivers a lecture on the philosophy of completion. “We, therefore, ignore human governments, creeds, and institutions … we deny the right of any man to dictate laws for our regulation, or duties for our performance; and declare our allegiance only to Universal love, the all-embracing Justice.”51

Fruitlands embraces the concept of a totalizing reorganization of human life and conduct. The degree to which this reorganization takes place would fracture the community—Lane, a single man, desires to transcend the family, while Abigail Alcott (and to a lesser extent, Bronson Alcott) understandably bristle at the notion. Alcott, like Thoreau, attempts to ground life in principles higher than those of politics—in this case, the principle is an appeal to a universal (love or justice) that transcends time and place.

Fruitlands’ major philosophical push is for what Abigail Alcott terms “diffusive illimitable benevolence,” a theory of a particular, small organization having the effect of transforming the whole of society through its shining example.52 Alcott and Lane plan Fruitlands as an experiment in living, one that they (particularly Lane) feel will transform the burgeoning American social and economic world toward a more complete and divine end. Diffusive illimitable benevolence grasps the transcendental combination of the universal and the particular but also works as a theory of truth in disclosure. Alcott’s vision of Fruitlands is a vision of truth—truth in social life—that must be disclosed in order to be dispersed and lived in other contexts. The particular life of Fruitlands is agrarian and local, but its impact, echoing the utopian socialist movement at large, intends to be global.

Money Problems

It is fitting to conclude the discussion of Brook Farm and Fruitlands with a discussion of their money problems. Both Brook Farm and Fruitlands are (p.93) enormous farms, far beyond what is needed to sustain the number of individuals within; of course, this leaves the Ripleys, Alcotts, and Lane in terrible debt. Thoreau’s famous quote from Walden “It is difficult to begin without borrowing” is not related directly to the utopian communities but represents his explanation for borrowing an axe to begin building his own cabin.53 Thoreau’s meticulous accounting of his intakes and expenditures reveals a thoroughly different understanding of the problems of money and labor in the early nineteenth century. Money problems, in fact, give us one of the starkest differences between Thoreau and early communitarianism: communitarians locate the sense of freedom, of completion of the self, within the collective value of labor and the freedom to choose forms of labor. For Thoreau, one is free to the degree that he or she is not committed to something, whether it is a house or a prison.54 Thoreau is at pains to point out exactly the degree to which he remains free, which offers an implicit critique of the motivations and methods of Brook Farm and Fruitlands. Indebtedness spawns desperation.

Brook Farm and Fruitlands aim to recreate the individual by offering the completions fractured by the fates of early modern capitalism. This agrarian dream, upset in Brook Farm by the transition to Fourierism, and in Fruitlands by the inabilities of its members as farmers, suffers ultimately at the hands of the market. Brook Farmers cannot make anything that will sell, they cannot get their own members to pay their dues or membership fees, and the wells of easy borrowing run dry. Fruitlands is doomed from the start, having few laborers, little understanding of agriculture, and poor land for performing the types of work they wish to perform. These idealistic movements are brought down ultimately by the stubborn realities of the nineteenth century. Thoreau, offered to camp in Brook Farm in 1841, notes famously, “I think I had rather keep bachelor’s hall in hell than go to board in heaven.”55 Thoreau negates the specifics of the movement, but this does not suggest that his own sojourn does not share the principles and hopes of the movement.

The connection between Walden and the Brook Farm/Fruitlands experiments often neglects the crucial issue of money and debt. In a key article on Thoreau’s politics in Walden, Brian Walker offers this summary: “Thoreau’s central theme is that working conditions in a market democracy can easily undermine liberty and erode autonomy.”56 Walker’s brilliant essay connects Walden to the problem of work but stops at the inhumanity of the practice (p.94) of labor without deconstructing the cause of market labor—the problem of debt. While we can read Walden as an argument for the reworking of the practice of labor, it is more fruitful for us to examine the problem Thoreau examines himself: that the act of indebtedness, of becoming indebted through commitments—whether social, filial, intellectual, or economic—creates the conditions through which labor becomes necessary. Thoreau is not so much trying to reform labor as he is attempting to ground the self in its ability to bypass commitment, to refuse to take on the debts that one does not or should not choose. Walker is correct to argue that Walden attempts to “render poverty livable.”57 But Thoreau’s major philosophical push in Walden is to challenge and reshape the notion of indebtedness and the subsequent problem of fate.

In another way we see Thoreau’s quotation “It is difficult to begin without borrowing” explaining the difficulties not only of work but of philosophy. In a 1928 letter, Heidegger offers the following: “Perhaps philosophy shows most forcibly and persistently how much man is a beginner. Philosophizing ultimately means nothing other than being a beginner.”58 Thoreau makes a point of mentioning the lack of books at his cabin during his two-year stay and declares with verve, “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.”59 As explored above, one of Thoreau’s motivations in Walden is to recreate the practice of philosophy, returning philosophy to its concerns with “voluntary poverty” and away from the borrowings of the wisdom of others. Again, as a means of freedom, Thoreau is attempting to locate his own philosophical abilities without indebting himself to a fresh tradition; of course, this is the popular justification of Thoreau’s American newness (borrowed from Emerson), which subjects all history, all nature, and all purpose to the whim of the ever-present American individual. If philosophy is about being a beginner (in Heidegger’s phrase), Thoreau is attempting to find something more raw in the connection between philosophy and practical life. Removing the debts one incurs in attempting to become something or someone else is the crucial first step in this mission.

In dealing with questions of debt, fate, freedom, and work, Thoreau connects himself to ancient philosophy, particularly its Stoic variant. Walker argues rightly that the “key to Walden is the way it combines ancient philosophical practices and modern economic calculations to set out a strategy by which citizens can realize their liberty.”60 This argument is made clear through the comparison of Thoreau’s concerns with partiality, wholeness, and (p.95) debt alongside those of Epictetus, whose Discourses offers a pre-Thoreauvian analysis of the promises and pitfalls involved in describing the boundaries of individual freedom amid the promises of commitment, esteem, and public evaluation.

Problems of the Self in Epictetus: Stoic Themes and Walden’s Philosophical Force

The question of partiality and wholeness not only abounds in nineteenth-century American philosophy but was an important concern of the Roman Stoics as well. Epictetus’s powerful endorsement of Socratic philosophy in Book 1 of the Discourses alerts us to the context of the problem: “We … think of ourselves as though we were mere bellies, entrails, and genitals, just because we have fear, because we have appetite, and we flatter those who have power to help us in these matters.”61 Our split within ourselves is the doing of our desires, which prompts us to value matters—emotions, circumstances, and individuals—the effect of which is not under our control. “Well, what about my brother’s life?—That again is the subject of his own art of living, but with respect to your art of living it comes under the category of externals, like a farm, like health, like good repute.”62 Epictetus’s method of prodding and thrusting individuals into a state of contentedness with their present state anticipates Thoreau’s own method, and the ultimate goal of this philosophical exercise is the same practical end: “Stop admiring your clothes … stop admiring your wife’s beauty.”63 Each philosopher wrestles with the conditions under which individuals make themselves partial through their existential dedication to matters outside their control.

Epictetus’s concentration on eradicating one’s partial commitments to others—what Ortega y Gasset will term alteraction—leads to a philosophy of ownness that demands one pay attention to oneself first and foremost: “No one is dearer to me than myself.”64 Epictetus attends to himself because he believes it is his nature as a situated self to act as a free man, to practice his freedom in such a way that this freedom is maintained or expanded.65 Ridding oneself of one’s partial commitments is not a matter of luxury for the Stoic philosopher; indeed, it is an important precondition for coming to philosophical thinking: “You have to submit to discipline, follow a strict diet, give up sweet-cakes, train under compulsion.”66 The philosopher becomes so through preparing himself to unify the desires of his body with the demands (p.96) of nature and the mind, “so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.”67

Concerns that lead the self outward situate the self as the servant of an external cause or individual. “But if you gape open-mouthed at externals, you must needs be tossed up and down according to the will of your master. And who is your master? He who has authority over any of the things upon which you set your heart or which you wish to avoid.”68 Epictetus later counsels, “Never lay claim to anything that is not your own.”69 Epictetus’s claim that another can master the self through dictating the self’s fulfillment of desire rests on the argument that commitment to an external cause creates a false or faulty indebtedness to another, pushing us beyond our own toward what is unnatural for us. Epictetus seals the philosophical power of ownness by attributing it to God: “And what is the law of God? To guard what is his own, not to lay claim to what is not his own.”70 The consequence of living outside oneself may include public esteem and outward success, but the internally demanding force of outwardness perpetuates one’s distance from one’s own accounts of control.

Thoreau says in an 1849 letter to Harrison Blake, “Let us live a thread of life.”71 Thoreau’s consistent return to the actions of reducing, simplifying, and moving backward echo in Epictetus’s philosophy as well. The practice of unifying oneself underneath the umbrella of one’s own willable actions necessitates that one’s hopes and yearnings significantly reduce in favor of more measured expectations from one’s life and the world. Living a thread of life may be all that there is for the whole self, because it is one’s own thread. Epictetus argues, “You did not come into the world to select unusually fine places, but to live and go about your business in the place where you were born and enrolled as a citizen.”72 This argument echoes Thoreau’s in “Resistance to Civil Government”: “I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad.”73 Understanding the proper boundaries of the self’s effects on its life and the lives around it is the paramount objective of both Stoic and Thoreauvian philosophy. Epictetus asks, “And how shall I free myself?” and he answers: “Direct your aversion towards the things that lie within the sphere of the moral purpose.”74 Thoreau, in an early letter to Blake, laments that some “are cursed with duties.”75 Duties are a curse insofar as they arise unnecessarily out of mistake; one binds oneself to the assumed duties of his or her parents, the community, friends, social mores, or other externalizing devices.

(p.97) The Story of Partiality in Thoreau’s Walden

As mentioned above, there are an extraordinary number of topics, themes, and interpretations of Thoreau’s Walden, but one of the more underrepresented areas of focus is Thoreau’s motivation for writing the book (and for having the experience). Thoreau’s ethos in Walden is a non-desperate life, and the bulk of the first chapter of the book, “Economy,” will diagnose the problem of desperation in nineteenth-century New England. The question of what causes desperation, and what a desperate life entails, leads Thoreau back to the communitarian movements mentioned. Similarly to Brook Farm and Fruitlands, Thoreau employs the transcendentalist goal of reconstructing the self by creating the mythological wholeness with nature through labor. Emerson’s desire to redeem history through its marriage to presence, echoed in Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, receives a more radicalized treatment in Walden. Thoreau is reconstituting the conditions of private life—what Thoreau calls “necessity”—as a means of transporting the self out of the puzzles of one’s own historical time and into the safe space of a self-reliant, unhistorical mind: “Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.”76

The problems of partiality and completion haunt Walden: the first aim of his book, to critique the concept of property as necessity, contains an explicit critique of partiality: “I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools…. Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born?”77 Thoreau maintains this critique throughout the first chapter and into the second, where he uses his imagination to “buy” several farms in his mind, only to cede ownership in reality. Property represents partiality in a twofold sense: first, one is literally taking a part of the world for one’s own, at the expense of the rest of the world (or, in Thoreau’s mind, the rest of the village). One finds oneself focusing work, joy, and trial on the partiality of one’s “own” property, forsaking that which is not owned, the wild, new, expansive provincial world Thoreau inhabits. Second, property represents partiality in a social sense: it is through the acquisition of property that individuals become workers, having “no time to be anything but a machine.”78 Emerson’s criticism of partiality as becoming monster and Thoreau’s criticism of the individual as a machine display the grotesque imagery of partiality, transforming the self into something (p.98) other—monsters and machines are, after all, other terms for incomplete human beings.

Individuals are made partial through a desperate attempt to hang on to the things they do not know they do not need. As Thoreau notes famously, “men labor under a mistake.”79 The mistake of necessity contains vital consequences. Some of Thoreau’s strongest language in Walden comes from his critique of the everyday life of the new worker. “It is very evident what mean and sneaking lives many of you live,” Thoreau argues, “always on the limits, trying to get into business and trying to get out of debt, a very ancient slough, called by the Latins, aes alienum, another’s brass.”80 Thoreau describes the details of this desperate life, wherein individuals are always committed to the projects of another. This privatist concern with those the self serves reminds the reader of Max Stirner’s preface to The Ego and Its Own, in which Stirner attempts to recover a sense of freedom as self-enjoyment. Thoreau similarly locates the necessities of market life as a loss of freedom, a dissipation of the self’s conception of itself. Interestingly, Thoreau could be describing life at Brook Farm, where the desperate search for money quickly outweighs the virtues of collective life. Thoreau’s diagnosis of the desperate life remains strictly on the consequences of social life for the individual and does not carry with it the “disease” of collective reform.

Thoreau writes Walden as an individual, for individuals, so it is no surprise that he is so attentive to the conditions of the individual psyche. Perhaps the most striking passage of the famous first chapter is Thoreau’s concern for personal affirmation:

I sometimes wonder that we can be so frivolous, I may almost say, as to attend to the gross but somewhat foreign form of servitude called Negro Slavery, there are so many keen and subtle masters that enslave both north and south. It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself. Talk of divinity in man! Look at the teamster on the highway, wending to market by day or night; does any divinity stir within him? His highest duty to fodder and water his horses! What is his destiny to him compared to the shipping interests? … How godlike, how immortal is he?81

Thoreau’s evaluation of the importance of a cause to oneself may escape us on first reading. It is important to note, however, that Thoreau critiques our (p.99) attention to chattel slavery not because it is somehow less gross than we feel, but that it remains at a distance from our personal lives. Highlighting vital distance and not severity is a foundational source of personal value for Thoreau. To argue that one’s private opinion of oneself is somehow worse than slavery is a nonsensical argument unless we understand that Thoreau argues that it is worse for that particular self, because it is one’s own life. As Thoreau argues, our lives are in some way irretrievably partial.

Thoreau’s diagnosis of desperation reaches an apex with his discussion of private opinion and public opinion. There are several important takeaways from this passage, but the most important is that Thoreau will somehow measure a non-desperate life by the self’s ability to find the things that are closest to it. The communitarian move to remake society in order to remake the individual is far from Thoreau’s mind—as is Emerson’s individualist move to remake society by first remaking the self. Thoreau’s aim is to bypass desperation personally, and to let the world be as it is. “Our opinion of ourselves is our fate,” Thoreau notes, and he aims to allow individuals sufficient room for completing themselves via a hard-wrought investigation into individual wants and desires.82 Thoreau’s privatist vision of escaping desperation will be intimately connected to his bedrock concept of “faithfully minding my business.”83 Thoreau does not offer a program of personal reform, but only an invitation to make one’s life one’s own and to work toward self-completion: “The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of others?”84

Thoreau’s odd discussion of youth and old age in the opening pages of Walden comes to an apex with the notion of partiality: “Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial.”85 Later, Thoreau writes, “You may say the wisest thing you can, old man…. I hear an irresistible voice which invites me away from all that.”86 Of course, Thoreau himself admits the partiality of his own experiment and its value four pages earlier, arguing that his book is best suited for poor students, but that anyone may plunder the rest for its vital value. Thoreau is quick to dismiss the “partial” experience of the old having an influence on the young, but he is also involved in defending partiality as a way of living a non-desperate life. Partiality, in fact, and the uniqueness of individual experience, is what will set Thoreau’s agrarian experiment apart from the agrarian experiments of his transcendentalist acquaintances. Moral teachers of the ages (here Thoreau notes Solomon and Hippocrates) attempt to (p.100) discover the minute, or particular, laws of human conduct—including the proper length of fingernails and the ethics of the distances of trees.87 This sort of partiality—partial legislation—receives a good critique from Thoreau. There remains an impossible—or seemingly impossible—relation of partiality and universality in Thoreau’s text. Later in the introduction, Thoreau offers this counsel: “Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”88

Our social lives are undeniably partial, and Thoreau envisions no way of reconciling individual lives toward a universal goal. “The only cooperation which is commonly possible is exceedingly partial and superficial.”89 If Brook Farm and Fruitlands aim at reducing partiality, Thoreau argues that they are wrong in their diagnosis of the problem. The problem of living a partial life has more to do with the everydayness of alienation, which can be solved only through a thorough reconciling of one’s true necessities. Thoreau’s concentrations throughout “Economy” on food, shelter, clothing, and fuel—the basic necessities of human life—mimic the reorganization of these necessities within the communitarian reform movement. Thoreau, however, argues that his community of one, with its lack of capital, privatist personal ethic, and “voluntary poverty,” represents the truly philosophical way of coming out of the desperate circumstances of collective life.90

Partiality represents the limit of political life: we are always attempting to understand another, to reform another, without the proper means of knowing what that person needs. This is the locus of Thoreau’s critique of reform. Thoreau argues that he would stay away from reformers, “for fear that I should get some of his good done to me—some of its virus mingled with my blood.”91 The reformer works not primarily out of a desire to change the world, but to shake off a part of itself that it cannot handle: “I believe what so saddens the reformer is not his sympathy with his fellows in distress, but … his private ail.”92 A vital shortage in individual life—an individual severed from himself, experiencing the horror of another kind of doubleness—accounts for the desire to reform others. But, as Thoreau mentions, we live so far distant from another: “Often the poor man is not so cold and hungry as he is dirty and ragged and gross. It is partly his taste, and not merely his misfortune. If you give him money, he will perhaps buy more rags with it.”93 Reformers desire to “fix” others out of a sense of personal embarrassment on their behalf, but this is as close as we get to another person. Politics, (p.101) the means by which we negotiate the distributions of rights and responsibilities, always plays at a remove from the actual lives of individual participants.

If the everyday world of participatory politics provides no way beyond a desperate life, and the social organization of life offers little, Thoreau gives breath to amending the concept of self-completeness within an individual. By the time of Walden’s publication in 1854, Thoreau is well on his way to becoming absorbed in the particulars of Concord’s natural life, and the influence of nineteenth-century natural science will push the romanticism of Thoreau’s early theories of completion toward a more empirical holism.94 As such, Walden’s “hero” will be the individual who can find completeness within the confines of a private life.

The Canadian woodchopper, Alek Therien, certainly qualifies as the most heroic figure in Walden. Thoreau is unreservedly celebratory of Therien, partially because he represents something Thoreau so desires to cultivate: “In him the animal man chiefly was developed.”95 Thoreau’s interest in wild figures, such as the woodchopper and Maine woods guide Joseph Polis, augments his frequent appeals to wildness on his own behalf: “I caught a glimpse of a woodchuck stealing across my path, and felt a strange thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw; not that I was hungry then, except for that wildness which he represented.”96 Thoreau mentions later in the same paragraph: “I found in myself … an instinct toward a higher, or as it is named, spiritual life … and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both.”97 While Thoreau reverences the spiritual and the animal, it is clear from his description of Therien that the project of self-completion involves coming to grips with the animal inside. In many ways Thoreau’s Walden deals with the concept of savagery similarly to Rousseau’s Second Discourse; we get the sense, with this description of the hero, that regaining the virtues of savagery is a more difficult task than achieving the virtues of a civilized life.98

Therien “interested me because he was so quiet and solitary and so happy withal,” a sense of completion achieved through a lack of self-doubt, introspection, and guilt.99 The woodchopper’s self-assurance compels Thoreau because it is so innocent, so provincial, and so antiquated. When Thoreau asks him if he is a reformer who would like the world to be changed, Therien, shocked, replies, “No, I like it well enough.”100 His simple philosophy of life internalizes the functions of institutions without moralizing them and offers Thoreau a glimpse of his philosophy in action. Thoreau finds him (p.102) so interesting that he “would any day walk ten miles to observe it, and it amounted to the re-origination of many of the institutions of society.”101 The split of the individual, in this case, is bandaged through the reacquaintance of the self with the animal within. Of course, Therien is limited, as Thoreau notes: “His thinking was so primitive and immersed in his animal life, that, though more promising than a merely learned man’s, it rarely ripened into anything which can be reported.”102

As a result of Therien’s intellectual deficiency, Thoreau stops short of declaring him the ideal man. Indeed, Thoreau’s celebration of his “half-cultivated field” in “The Bean-Field” chapter alerts us to the necessity of intellectual and instinctual cultivation in the composition of the complete soul. In the process of hoeing beans, Thoreau transcends the practice—“It was no longer beans that I hoed, nor that I hoed beans”103—and the bean field achieves its primary purpose, “to serve as a parable-maker one day.”104 We find that Therien offers the promise of a simplified existence, but it is one that falls short of realizing the complete soul.

Therien represents a portion of completion of the self, for Thoreau a boon to the mood of Walden. Contrasting the woodchopper with the John Field family, Irish immigrants renting the Baker Farm, yields an understanding of Thoreau’s context. Thoreau visits the family and attempts to educate them on his own simple existence. The Field family, a brutal example of the desperation of the times, settles in the United States with a hope of becoming self-sufficient and having the luxuries and trappings of successful life. However, Thoreau argues, “the only true America is that country where you are at liberty to pursue such a mode of life as may enable you to do without these [things].”105 His words to the Field family fall flat, as they concern themselves primarily with making a decent life out of the partial successes of small material advantages. Thoreau cannot and will not take them seriously, and they provide a useful counter-example to the woodchopper. Thoreau’s “only true America” again places the emphasis of freedom on one’s freedom from encumbrances of the modern world.

The emphasis on partiality and completion in Thoreau’s Walden represents an amendment of the transcendentalist philosophy of unity between the particulars and the universal. For Thoreau, partiality is the necessary condition of social life—as such, we cannot hope to transcend it. Inward partiality, however, is in our power to change. To become inwardly complete, and thus to achieve an active and meaningful sense of freedom, individuals (p.103) must plumb their own lives for the partialities, the alienations, that take their time and stretch their commitments. For Thoreau, this is his path to a non-desperate life.

A Non-Desperate Life: Walden and the Completion of the Self

Thoreau’s diagnosis of the modern problem of partiality relies on his overarching critique of social means of reforming society. The search for a non-desperate life, a fulfilling life within the confines of an ever-changing society, brings Thoreau to the connections that dominate his later thought. In the opening paragraph of “Solitude,” Thoreau writes: “This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself…. I see nothing special to attract me, all the elements are unusually congenial to me.”106 Thoreau describes the feelings that many echo upon experiencing truly great moments; here, however, the importance lies in Thoreau’s refusal (or inability) to locate the centrality of that feeling on one particular object. Therien’s ease and acquiescence to the world pale in comparison with Thoreau’s uncontested affirmation that “all the elements are unusually congenial” to him. The natural life—the serene, confident, non-desperate life—shuns the partiality of selective attention and finds itself affirming all that surrounds. What appears a mystical experience for Thoreau effectively demonstrates the requirements for escaping the problem of partiality.

Thoreau’s sense of completeness also demonstrates itself in the opening paragraph of “Sounds”: “What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen?”107 Demonstrating that he indeed looks at what is to be seen, Thoreau describes himself “in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house.”108 The moments of quiet presence, which decorate the opening lines of several middle paragraphs in Walden, act as evidence of the possibilities and consequences of existential completeness: in these moments Thoreau is perfectly content, not desperate, a part of nature itself, having achieved the completeness desired by transcendentalists. “Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clarke and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes.” (p.104) 109 Thoreau refurbishes the classical dictum to “explore thyself,” offering it in the context of traveling within oneself to know—and then live—the various parts of the self.110

Thoreau’s dictum that one become “expert in home-cosmography” suggests a self-satisfaction that does not seek the substitute satisfactions of travel. Thoreau’s response to the railroad, the newspaper, and the telegraph, often viewed as stubborn ramblings, offers the grounds for a cogent defense of provincialism. One of Thoreau’s goals in Walden, according to David Robinson, is to reignite the Jeffersonian agrarian myth.111 But Thoreau goes further—his goal, in this particular case, is to defend the type of life in which one is not always searching for something beyond the self. Thoreau lives outside of Concord for six months out of his life and speaks of Concord as his definitive place: “My feet forever stand / On Concord fields / And I must live the life / Which this soil yields.”112 Yet around him, the speed of interstate communication is on everyone’s mind: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”113

Thoreau’s definition of the philosopher—one who lives according to “simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust”—eschews the desperation of the early market through a continual practical investigation into the principles of its life. Thoreau’s Walden, like the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius or the Discourses of Epictetus, is repetitive, because the non-desperate life is perpetually involved in overcoming the same problems—the extravagances of feeding necessities, the problem of others, and the question of how to spend one’s time. Thoreau’s primary paradox in Walden is that simplification, honed through solitude, provides the enduring richness of life. Thoreau’s emphasis on solitude is, among other things, a solidification of the method of experiencing exhilaration in life: “There can be no black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still…. I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me.”114 The unburdened life, another term for the non-desperate life, connects Thoreau’s philosophy of getting a living to his broader privatist philosophy.

In a journal entry from the summer of 1845, Thoreau writes: “To live to a good old age such as the ancients reached—serene and contented—dignifying the life of man—Leading a simple epic country life—in these days of confusion and turmoil.”115 This quote, which turns from the goals of Wordsworth (p.105) to Thoreau’s own goal, connects the agrarian ideal of the “simple epic country life” and the serenity of the non-desperate ideal to the imminent confusion of contemporary social life. Thoreau offers Walden as an invitation to a radical individualism because the problems he diagnoses cannot be solved through a mediated or transcendentalized reconfiguration of society. The quotation that opens this essay, taken from Michael Gilmore’s fine book American Romanticism and the Marketplace, is chosen not because it presents a unique view of Thoreau’s time at Walden Pond; indeed, one could argue that Gilmore’s quote is representative of the majority opinion of Thoreau scholars. The interpretation of Thoreau’s experiment as a failure obfuscates Thoreau’s purpose in writing the book: simply put, political life offers few avenues through which individuals can meaningfully improve their lives, given the breadth and depth of trenchant social changes. Thoreau’s alternative to Brook Farm and Fruitlands stems from the same purpose—to reconfigure or suture the individual’s disparate parts—but Thoreau recognizes, or theorizes, that the self cannot transfer its social allegiances to another group without paying significant costs of life.

Thoreau’s nexus of freedom is, as he mentions in a poem from his time at Walden Pond, “freedom from care.”116 Once Thoreau reaches the point of articulating his philosophy of freedom, he opens eyes to the rationale behind his temporary relocation to Walden Pond. Thoreau’s particular brand of freedom—a release from concern with externals—renders mass democratic politics unable to solve the philosophical problems of individual life. Politics is, first and foremost, about externals; it rarely contains vital value but is generally dissipated as a spectator sport through the mediation of the newspaper. Thoreau’s Walden experiment cannot be interpreted as a failure for its inability to found a society or even a civic moral; indeed, Thoreau’s experiment could not be conducted under conditions of abstract sociality. For Thoreau to free himself from care—and to offer this existential freedom as an invitation to readers—he rejects the communitarian social cure in favor of an individual experiment that provides a cure by removing the symptoms.

Thoreau’s non-desperate life is finally achieved as the individual suspends care from the types of concerns plaguing the average individual. The modern disease of improving oneself operates as a sort of lived servitude to ideals that do not respond to the demands of life. Thoreau offers instead: “However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names…. Love your life, poor as it is.”117 Later in the conclusion he offers (p.106) this solace to the voluntary poor: “If you are restricted in your range by poverty, if you cannot buy books and newspapers, for instance, you are but confined to the most significant and vital experiences…. It is life near the bone where it is sweetest.”118 When one finds oneself within the bonds of poverty—and feeling desperate from its tightening grip—Thoreau offers that one merely suspend care. The wholeness offered through a simple acceptance of ownness supplied by attending to one’s cares at the expense of the public absolves the self of the trifles of that which is not one’s own.


(1.) Michael T. Gilmore, American Romanticism and the Marketplace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 35–36.

(2.) Thoreau, Familiar Letters, 83. This particular letter is from Thoreau to his (p.185) mother and father shortly after his arrival in Staten Island, where he served as tutor to the sons of William Emerson.

(4.) Ibid., 349.

(5.) Ibid., 350.

(6.) Ibid., 348.

(7.) In a Journal entry from August 14, 1840, Thoreau writes, “I cannot attach much importance to historical epochs—or geographical boundaries—when I have my Orient and Occident in one revolution of my body” (Thoreau, Journal [Princeton], 1:172).

(8.) Martin Heidegger, “Why Do I Stay in the Provinces?” in Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker, ed. Thomas Sheehan (Chicago: Precedent, 1981), 27.

(9.) Ibid., 28.

(13.) Ibid., 224.

(14.) Ibid., 225.

(17.) Ibid., 1:150.

(18.) Ibid., 1:158.

(19.) Ibid., 1:164.

(20.) Ibid., 1:166.

(23.) Ibid., 1:178.

(24.) Ibid., 1:179.

(25.) Epictetus, Discourses, trans. Robert Dobbin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 7; hereinafter, Epictetus, Discourses (Oxford).

(26.) This reading of Roman Stoicism is indebted to Pierre Hadot, whose The Inner Citadel and What Is Ancient Philosophy? remain the key texts in this school; Thoreau, Walden (Princeton), 31.

(28.) For an excellent analysis of Epictetus and Socratic invulnerability, see Christopher Gill, The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), esp. 74–126.

(30.) Ibid., 4:251.

(34.) Carl J. Guarneri, The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in Nineteenth-Century America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 43.

(35.) Ibid., 8–9.

(36.) Richard Francis, Transcendental Utopias: Individual and Community at Brook Farm, Fruitlands, and Walden (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), 42.

(37.) Ibid., 1–34.

(38.) This provides us with just one of the countless Socratic tendencies within transcendentalist thought, particularly its Thoreauvian vein. The question of parts and wholes not only defines Plato’s Meno but could be said to be one of the hallmark concepts of Socratic philosophy altogether.

(39.) Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte (New York: Library of America, 1983), 54.

(41.) Ibid., 49.

(42.) Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance, ed. Seymour Gross and Rosalie Murphy (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 16.

(43.) Sterling Delano, Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 120–22, 145.

(44.) Ibíd., 165.

(45.) Ibid., 125.

(46.) Ibid., 208–9.

(47.) Ibid., 254–56.

(49.) Richard Francis, Fruitlands (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 236–39.

(50.) Lane’s defense of libertarianism is collected in a series of letters entitled A Voluntary Political Government.

(52.) Ibid., 163.

(54.) Ibid., 84.

(57.) Ibid., 55.

(58.) Rudiger Safranski, Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil, trans. Ewald Osers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 1.

(62.) Ibid., 1:105.

(63.) Ibid., 1:123.

(65.) Ibid., 2:57.

(66.) Ibid., 2:101.

(69.) Ibid., 1:247.

(70.) Ibid., 1:321.

(77.) Ibid., 5.

(78.) Ibid., 6.

(79.) Ibid., 5.

(80.) Ibid., 6–7.

(81.) Ibid., 7.

(84.) Ibid., 19.

(85.) Ibid., 9.

(86.) Ibid., 10–11.

(87.) Ibid., 9–10.

(88.) Ibid., 10.

(89.) Ibid., 71.

(90.) Ibid., 14.

(91.) Ibid., 74.

(92.) Ibid., 78.

(93.) Ibid., 75.

(94.) This is discussed at length in Laura Dassow Walls’s Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995).

(96.) Ibid., 210.

(p.188) (98.) Melissa Lane makes a similar argument in her essay “Thoreau and Rousseau: Nature as Utopia,” in A Political Companion to Henry David Thoreau, ed. Jack Turner (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009).

(100.) Ibid., 148.

(101.) Ibid., 150.

(104.) Ibid., 176.

(106.) Ibid., 129.

(107.) Ibid., 111.

(109.) Ibid., 321.

(110.) Ibid., 322.

(111.) David Robinson, “‘Unchronicled Nations’: Agrarian Purpose and Thoreau’s Ecological Knowing,” Nineteenth-Century Literature 48, no. 3 (1993): 326–40.

(114.) Ibid., 131.

(118.) Ibid., 329.