Henry David Thoreau

“Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.”

Henry David Thoreau (born David Henry Thoreau; July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) was an American author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resistor, development critic, surveyor, historian, and leading transcendentalist.

On the topic of morality, Thoreau was an avid supporter of self-reliance and independence, while often fighting against society and its institutions that he and many other Transcendentalists believed corrupted the purity of the individual. In his essay, Civil Disobedience, Thoreau argues that people should not allow government rule because it messes with their consciences. Because of that they have the right, and therefore a moral duty to themselves, to avoid such variations of injustice.

One of Thoreau’s starting statements of his essay states, “I heartily accept the motto –That government is best which governs least” (Resistance to Civil Government 1857) Here, Thoreau is very determined to make a point concerning the way in which government is controlled and how important decisions are made within the system. By speaking “heartily” we already get the vibe that Thoreau fully believes that a government, should ironically, “govern least.” Thoreau means that the government, though elected by the people, should put more effort in asking of the peoples opinion than being secretive and deciding amongst themselves what is good for the public. In a way, is it then better for a government to use all its “arms” as Thoreau describes them, equally and mutually than one becoming stronger than another and creating an imbalance in rules and regulations and, too much overlapping? Perhaps Thoreau means to state that he believes a government should not govern at all, or very little, if it is going to be unjust.  In a way, Thoreau might be saying we are better off as governors of overselves in some aspects of life, than letting a government system control everything. But because we are individuals who also elected officials in those offices, we can be equally to blame if they prove to be false and unjust. Perhaps when Thoreau later states that, “under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” he means exactly that, as believing and voting for an unjust system inevitably means a just individual is also put in their own prison, as he/she does not have an individual rightly representing all. I say all, as we are all under one nation here in America, and with an unjust system, Thoreau seems to be saying that it is best that this type of corrupt government should not even exist, as all it does is hurt the just. We should instead push for a better one. Thoreau is stating that individual rights should be taken as more just than government laws. The individual is too important to be taken over by a government which to Thoreau, causes more harm than good. Too much power can cloud judgment, and at times that leads to unjust acts, such as wars that are agreed upon within the government system yet not by the people. Such an example of this is The Mexican-American war, one in which, along with slavery, Thoreau was disgusted with.  When not listening to the people and creating a mess within the government system that is full of lies and complications, the government loses its followers, and often a well needed moral rebellion is created. The question that then comes into play is what group is stronger and in more need of support, the government or the American citizens?

Going off the question as to what group has more power, the individual or society, that topic was often questioned amongst Transcendentalists like Thoreau in connection with the importance of fighting for moral justice. Society was seen as a place that stripped people of their individuality and therefore Thoreau argued that once the government got their claws in you, you became nothing more than a machine.

The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as machines with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, &c. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stone; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose well.” (Resistance to Civil Government 1859)

In this excerpt, Thoreau makes many profound statements concerning men who work in the State Government. He describes them as “machines,” a strong term to bluntly mean that these men, who we would consider human like us, are actually not human at all. Though they seem to be on the outside, once they put on their uniforms and go to work, it becomes more than a job, but an obsessive duty, just like a robot has. The duty is all they think about as they are merely programmable to do as their puppeteers want them to do.  Each member of government is therefore a puppeteer of another few members, and the hierarchy is complex. Therefore, there are bound to be loopholes and ways to act unjust. These individuals are therefore not free thinkers but are ones that though can protect, such as the “militia,” they can also do unjust things when it begins to interfere with their “duties.” When Thoreau uses the word “free” he uses as a means to describe how having a government does not include complete freedom. One is not completely free when working for the government, as they do not have a “moral sense” of thinking. And because of this imbalance, their actions affect the rest of the public, and can bring about bad aftermaths at times. Thoreau even goes further to describe his clear distaste for the government by describing its workers as on the level of “wood, earth and stone,” all hard objects that are stiff, dirty or below the level of human beings, as we walk upon them. They are in a way, lower than life itself in Thoreau’s mind. He continues this belief that they are not human like, by using the word “manufactured,” a way to describe how they were metaphorically scientifically or even politically brainwashed and made to be this way. But who were they made by then? Other government officials or was it us, the public that gave up their individuality, their morality, and helped elect and bring about some corrupt officials? Either way, a government that is too hard, too harsh and without heart or an open mind, “no free exercise,” will help bring about a downfall to the human civilization.

Lastly, straying into the realm of morality and nature, Thoreau in his book, Walden, takes a different approach at trying to convince the American people that by living strictly by the laws of society and not simply and less selfishly, they have lost what it means to be an individual and to live freely. He criticizes us and says we live, “… meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness. Our life is frittered away by detail…Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” (Walden 1920)

By first stating that we as humans live “meanly,” Thoreau seems to say we busy ourselves so much upon tasks that are not even as important, instead of enjoying our individual life and Nature as it is. We are described as being ants as a way to say that though we can be simple things, like ants, we both work ourselves too hard.  Our behaviors are built on instinct to succeed and follow the rules of leaders, instead of own personal morals and wishes. Ants are apparently very structured and organized insects, having colonies and we act just like them, often fighting to perform the best tasks, the hardest work for the most pay and the greater rewards. Yet our rewards tend to be more materialistic than naturalistic, and therefore Thoreau believes it was worthless effort. It was worthless because our gain was not as important as what Nature has already given us; an enjoyable simplistic lifestyle that is full of imagination and free from control but our own. We are like “pygmies we fight with cranes,” a comparison of us humans being like the Greek mythology Pygmies who were often seen as fat and comical dwarfs, and those that had centuries worth of worthless fighting with cranes. I say worthless, as Thoreau would, as he seems to believe us humans just like the Pygmies, constantly using and abusing Nature and taking comfort in what we can take, but not wishing to live peacefully with the other animals and insects that also share this world. It is here that we are apparently not wishing to live in a happy balance, such as Emerson believed both Nature and human beings were made for. Aristotle once said that “the Pygmies live in caves,” which could compare to how we as a civilization don’t use every part of the world as our home, but instead have built cities and containments, such as our homes and the stores we shop at. We shield ourselves from all of Nature by not exploring all of it and seeing what it all can give us; we do not see Nature as a whole as our home. Thoreau describes us as people who continuously create “error upon error,” which I think means in our error of judgments concerning how to live and Nature. And because of our wish to be a detailed race, our once virtue that is often described as organized and good, is what actually makes us full of “wretchedness.” Thoreau describes this wretchedness as “superfluous” as it was not needed and therefore could have been avoided. It could only have been avoided though if we weren’t constantly “frittered away by detail.” Thoreau seems to believe that we forget that simplicity is more important in creating a long and successful life, and that too much structure and performing unjust acts within society will only hurt us in the end.

Further Reading:

An interesting look at Thoreau being seen as a humorous writer.

The Sewanee Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 David Henry Thoreau, His American Humor written by Ralph C. La Rosa.

A bunch of funny multimedia portrayals of Thoreau by an actor, with questions asked and “Thoreau” responding on his views on morality and living a simple and honest life.

Henry David Thoreau “Civil Disobedience” Audio Reading + Response.

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