IX.5: The Genius of Henry David Thoreau

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The Genius of Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau was a unique American whose philosophical writings have heavily influenced movers and shakers throughout the globe.

Henry David Thoreau has influenced everyone from Mahatma Ghandi to Leo Tolstoy to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was an avid abolitionist, a passionate naturalist, a contemplative philosopher, a brilliant essayist, a diligent student of the human condition, an imaginative visionary, and so much more.

Thoreau was born in 1817 and graduated with a master’s degree from Harvard. Then he taught grammar school with his brother John until John died from tetanus. Subsequently, he met Ralph Waldo Emerson who introduced him to a circle of writers and thinkers. The group included Ellery Channing, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Emerson, who became a life-long friend, convinced Thoreau to contribute essays and poems to a periodical called “The Dial”. Also, he convinced Thoreau to begin a journal, which today enjoys a world-wide readership.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and others followed a philosophy called Transcendentalism.

That was a belief that a spiritual state transcends, or goes beyond, the physical and is discovered through intuition rather than religious doctrine.

Thoreau spent most of his life working in his family’s pencil factory. In particular, he rediscovered a way to use clay to bind low quality graphite to make high quality pencils. Moreover, he started a new family business in graphite production.

In 1845, Thoreau built a small house on land owned by Emerson in a forest next to Walden’s Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts. For the next two years, he lived there alone in the woods. There, he contemplating nature and wrote his first book, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers”. Later, his records of his time at Walden’s Pond were published in his book, “Walden, or Life in the Woods”. Wikipedia describes that book as follows:

The work is part personal declaration of independence, social experiment, voyage of spiritual discovery, satire, and—to some degree—a manual for self-reliance. (Henry David Thoreau)

When told to pay his six years of delinquent poll taxes, Thoreau refused. He cited his opposition to slavery as well as to the Mexican-American War.

As a result, he spent the night in jail. The next morning, he was told that, contrary to his wishes, someone had paid his taxes for him, most likely a relative.

Afterwards, he began giving lectures on “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in Relation to Government”. HE explained his resistance to pay his taxes to a government with which he disagreed. Eventually, he published “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” from his lecture material, which has become somewhat of a manual for anti-government protest.

Some quotes from Henry David Thoreau’s writings follow:

That government is best that governs least. (Thoreau 1849, 1)

Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it. (Thoreau 1849, 3)

The lawyer’s truth is not Truth, but consistency or a consistent expediency. (Thoreau 1849, 27)

If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonable experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among the nations. (Thoreau 1849, 29)

Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? (Thoreau 1849, 29)

The question is not what you look at, but what you see. (Thoreau 1851, Aug. 5)

But man’s capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little has been tried. (Thoreau 1854, 16)

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Sources:

Henry David Thoreau. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_David_Thoreau (Accessed Oct. 15, 2020)

Thoreau, Henry David. 1849. On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/71/71-0.txt (Accessed Oct. 15, 2020)

Thoreau, Henry David. 1851. Journal II, 1850-September 15, 1851. Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/59031/59031-0.txt (Accessed Oct. 15, 2020).

Thoreau, Henry David. 1854. Walden, and On The Duty Of Civil Disobedience. Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/205/205-0.txt (Accessed Oct. 15, 2020).

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