Henry David Thoreau's Walden: A Radical Philosophical Charge for Individuality

           I.                Introduction

Henry David Thoreau, one of America's premier philosophers, has, over the course of time, been categorized on many levels.  His writing is beautiful and puts him in the great tradition of the romantic period.  He is also easily identified as a part of the transcendental movement in American intellectual history.  While time has brought over a century of criticism to his text Walden, much of the criticism has been focused on analyzing the text in a variety of traditions that can place it historically.  These analyses often attempt to classify the text.  Such classification risks a limited understanding of Walden.  What has been lost in much of the literature surrounding Walden is the radical philosophical message that Thoreau is sending his reader.  What is unique about Walden as compared to much of the other philosophy of the period is that Thoreau is speaking to individuals to reconsider their lives, not simply to society in an attempt for greater social change.  Stanly Cavell writes on the importance of Walden: "In rereading Walden twenty years after first reading it, I seemed to find a book of sufficient intellectual scope and consistency to have established or inspired a tradition of thinking.  One reason it did not is that American culture has never really believed in its capacity to produce anything of permanent value – except itself.  So it forever overpraises and undervalues its achievements."  (Cavell 1972: 32 – 33)  In reading and studying Walden in preparation for this project, I feel confident in saying that Cavell's statement on the text and the American culture would leave Thoreau with a great feeling of accomplishment.  Not only is Cavell correct in his praise of the text, but also in his assessment of society as Thoreau has critiqued it throughout Walden.  In this paper, I will examine the various important arguments given for different interpretations of Walden.  These are interpretations of Walden as an ecological text, as a sacred or spiritual text and as a critique of society.  Each of these interpretations holds great merit in reading Thoreau, but when used to limit ideology surrounding understandings of the text, Thoreau's true meaning is lost.  I will argue that in Walden, Thoreau asks readers to consider a paradigm shift in their lives towards who they really are.  To do this, the individuals must take themselves out of a life that is defined by society and enter into a life that is true to themselves.  The experience with the natural environment at Walden Pond serves as an instigator for this process in Thoreau's life.

             II.               Background

To truly understand the Walden experiment, one must first examine the project in relation to Thoreau's life.  Reading Walden with knowledge of Thoreau's life in mind is necessary because one can see the dramatic shift in his relation to the world before and after his time at Walden Pond.  Thoreau was a Harvard man and became acquainted there with the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Emerson and Thoreau later became close companions, and for the first part of Thoreau's professional career it was hard to distinguish between the two philosophers.  Thoreau was a part of the transcendental tradition in American history.  The Transcendental Club, which met in Concord, became active while Thoreau was still at Harvard.  Emerson and others founded this club with several common beliefs:

Maintaining that the senses were unreliable allies in the personal search for absolute truth, they (transcendentalists) believed that insight into the universal reality of God came directly to each individual human mind.  Rational Scientific investigation, the transcendentalists argued, uncovered knowledge only of the inferior material world.  To know God, each individual must set aside reason and fall back on intuitive perception.  Doing so, the individual would discover within knowledge of genuine beauty, morality and justice.  (McGregor 1997: 37 – 38)

As a student, Thoreau was first exposed to this school of thought by reading Emerson's book Nature.  He began to incorporate transcendental ideology into his thought and writing.  After Harvard, Thoreau met Emerson and the two became close friends.  Over the course of the several years, the two thinkers went through a series of losses and emotional experiences together.  Their bond became so close that much of history and criticism fails to see their uniqueness as thinkers and authors.  However, the distinction between the two became apparent after the publication of Walden. 

            Thoreau's writing is often characterized as part of the romantic tradition in literature.  Romanticism of Thoreau's time was drawn towards depicting the natural world.  This tradition links Thoreau with other authors such as Wordsworth, Goethe, Poe, Melville, Emerson and many others.  (McIntosh 1974: 58)  Thoreau's development of ideas of self and nature are, in the eyes of literary scholars, created in the truly romantic way because of the life and vigor he puts into the concepts as he writes.  (McIntosh 1974: 50)  Walden is often read as a part of a core curriculum to understand these characteristics of the romantic period.  Thoreau's work is often cherished by literary scholars because of his amazing use of metaphor and satire.  It is important to remember that these romantic characteristics of Thoreau's work, such as his nature metaphors and satirical statements about society, are simply that, and not a way to classify Walden. 

               III.              Thoreau as an Ecological Philosopher

William J. Wolf creates an interesting perspective on Thoreau as a part of an ecological tradition in philosophy.  The chapters in Walden that most often place Thoreau in this tradition are "Winter Animals" "The Ponds" and "The Pond in Winter".  Thoreau's careful study of the pond, measuring depth and other aspects of it through observation, provided detailed and accurate information about the natural environment.  Thoreau also made groundbreaking discoveries about the succession of forest trees and was active in an early form of forest management.  His Journal also exemplifies the attention to detail and interest in the natural world that dominated much of his thoughts during his time at Walden Pond.  It is also clear from Thoreau's Journal and Walden that he had the unique perspective of seeing human society as intruding into an ecosystem that belongs to the wild.  The natural response to Walden often seems to understand it in a tradition of writing that calls for a return to the natural world, the world of ant battles and cracking ice and sprouting beans.  Many readers of Walden may categorize it as a nature text because of the setting and poetic language that is used to describe the environment.  Wolf's interpretation of the text as a possible part of the ecological tradition does not rely on such superficial understandings of Walden as a nature text, but rather puts it into perspective with the transcendentalist tradition and with Thoreau's foundational understanding of natural philosophy.

            Wolf uses the term "ecologist" to refer to Thoreau with the definition of someone who practices the "study of the household or environment."  (Wolf 1974: 147)  The careful study of nature was important to Thoreau not only because of his experience at Walden Pond but also because of the spiritual role that the natural world plays in his personal understanding of reality.  Wolf's emphasis on the spiritual aspect of a human relationship with nature has its foundation in understanding Thoreau as a part of the transcendental movement.  Wolf characterized two major components to Thoreau's ecological philosophy.  The first component is "a mystical sense of oneness of all life through reciprocal interrelationships," and the second component is sensitivity toward all of nature, organic and inorganic, and a desire for fellowship with all things."  (Wolf 1974: 147)  These two components shape Thoreau's philosophy about the relationship between human beings and nature.  For many philosophers, including members of the Transcendental Club such as Emerson, the dominating quest for an understanding of reality bridged from the relationship between people and nature to God.  By looking to the natural world, transcendentalists would claim one becomes open to a relationship with God that is not found in the modern world.  Thoreau found, in his time at Walden, that the bridge to God was not necessary.  Harmony and spirituality that Thoreau found in a life directed from a relationship with nature brings life to a new level.  This level fulfills his spiritual needs completely, leaving no necessary bridge to a god outside of the natural world.  Thoreau did not need to pray to a deity, such as God, that existed outside of the physical world of nature because he found spirituality within nature.

            To write, Thoreau must use words, such as nature, that in our language hold the connotation of an attitude that views human society a separate and above the natural world.  Wolf spends a great deal of time clarifying the use of the word nature as he believes Thoreau meant it.  "Nature for Thoreau is therapy for tired and despairing people."  (Wolf 1974 pg. 152)  While this is not a definition of nature, this explanation does illustrate the purpose Wolf believes nature serves for human beings.  Wolf continues to outline the positive effects of a relationship with nature to the self, ranging from the preservation of an intellectual mind to a renewal of spirit and soul.  Wolf develops his theory that, when one cannot go into the woods, Thoreau believes that one may become closer to such renewal through reading about the natural world.  Thoreau found such peace when reading natural histories during the winters at Walden Pond.  The text Walden can easily serve a similar purpose for its reader. 

            In the transcendental tradition, Thoreau does not look at nature as a subject from which he is separated, but looks through nature to understand greater meanings.  Nature serves as a viewfinder for transcendence.  Thoreau wants to detail scientific facts about the natural world so that they can become moral truths about how one is supposed to live.  Wolf writes: "In Walden, Thoreau wrote a mythology of human experience communicated in part, at least, by the symbolism of nature as a universalizing agent."  (Wolf 1974: 153)  By categorizing nature as a "universalizing agent" Wolf is developing Thoreau's use of nature in the text to show that humans and the wild are a part of the same universal reality.  In Walden Thoreau shifts between two understandings about the relationship between nature and humans:  the necessity of humans in nature and the need to keep the presence of people from overwhelming nature.  Wolf sees the median of these two understandings in Walden in Thoreau's passion for the wild.  The wild is the natural environment, free of human society.  It exists in an interdependence of relationships of living creatures and organic matter that is untamed by any part of humanity.  The wild serves as a visible sign of reality that exists with people but without the corruption of society.  Wolf sees Walden as an effective text because it shows the reader the wild, its power and its spirit.  The simple life that Thoreau led at Walden Pond exemplifies the possibilities of understanding nature and human existence before the institutionalized, cultural understanding of life that exists in American society.  For Wolf, Walden is a text founded on ecological philosophy that is developed around the possibility of spiritual transcendence in nature.

                                                                                                       i.  Response

Wolf provides many accurate reflections on Thoreau's philosophy in Walden.  These glimpses that Wolf provides at the harmony and spiritual side of a relationship with the natural world do not extend to the entire scope of Thoreau's philosophy.  While transcendence through the natural world is a way that both Thoreau in Walden and his contemporaries in the Transcendental Club achieved a better way of life, this is just one of the many levels at which Walden is attempting to show the reader a way of life outside of society.  There is never a point in the text at which the reader should assume that a retreat into the natural world is the only way that they may achieve a better life.  Thoreau is very clear in showing that the Walden experiment worked in his life and that it may not extend to everyone's experience.  Wolf, by showing how the ecological emphasis in this text, hits on the fact that through the Walden experiment Thoreau saw a better way to live with a consciousness of his relationship to the various aspects the ecosystem.  The ecological perspective is the foundation from which one can draw themselves into Thoreau's philosophy, but not the place to make conclusions about Walden as a whole.

            Thoreau deals with the idea that Walden will be placed in the tradition of nature writers within the text.  Stanley Cavell gives an interpretation of the chapter entitled "The Bean Field" that shows the satirical nature of some of Thoreau's work.  In this chapter, Thoreau details the experience of growing the beans.  Thoreau takes us through the process by detailing plowing the field, planting the beans and watching them sprout and grow.  Thoreau's objective is not only to feed himself, but also to know the beans.  This chapter is extremely detailed and gives a great since of the sort of meditative process that can occur in planting, nourishing and growing plants.  Thoreau himself refers to the process of growing beans as a parable and allies the action of weeding the bean field with the actions of the epic Trojan War.  In this chapter, Thoreau has a mocking tone for both parable and epic, two qualifying terms that have often been used to describe much of his text.  Cavell writes: "What the writer is mocking in the obviousness of this parable is parable-making itself, those moralizings over nature that had become during the past century a literary pastime, and with which his writing would be confused."  (Cavell 1972: 21)  As we see in this chapter, Thoreau can poke humor both at his contemporaries within the transcendental and romantic traditions and at his own work.  It is clear that, while Thoreau respected other thinkers, such as Emerson, he did not want Walden to fall into a category of works that society was producing and praising during the period.  Walden reaches beyond showing its readers the beauty of nature and their place in it to challenging the very nature of human beings. 

                IV.              Walden as a Spiritual Text

John B. Pickard provides an interpretation of what he believes to be the basic principles of Walden in his essay "The Religion of 'Higher Laws'".  (Pickard 1968: 85-92)  Pickard believes that "Higher Laws", a central chapter in Walden, serves as an illumination of the Walden experience.  Metaphors of "Higher Laws," when connected to the rest of the book, provide a consistent series of images of rebirth and renewal, growth and fruition and daylight and dawn.  Pickard's analysis of the chapter as a guide and outline of the true "religion" behind Walden puts the texts in the tradition of transcendentalist ideology, because nature serves as the link between man and his spirituality.  The chapter "reflects Emerson's concepts in Nature, that every man possesses an inner spiritual instinct which, if carefully nurtured, will reveal the divine.  Though this force may be weakened and coarsened by man's predatory appetite, it can elevate this physical drive and direct it towards a spiritual goal."  (Pickard 1968: 85)  From this basis comes the paradoxical nature of man's search for spirituality that is dominant in "Higher Laws" and throughout Walden as a whole. 

            The natural instincts toward savagery, which Thoreau develops at the start of the chapter with a metaphor about food and appetite, are a part of the complete man, and when they are moderated and disciplined, they can promote a greater religious end.  The religious end is achieved when man transcends his natural instincts towards savagery.  The natural instincts are parts of the total man that are below reason.  They have the capacity to dehumanize man if they are let free to dominate behavior.  In "Higher Laws", we see Thoreau struggle with his savage instinct to eat a woodchuck raw.  Thoreau writes: "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 the wildness he represented." (Thoreau 1958: 157)  Thoreau's hunger is an internal desire to fulfill the savage side of his natural instincts.  If Thoreau follows through on such instincts toward savagery he loses his humanness and becomes a part of the wild.   

Thoreau sees another instinct in man.  This instinct is towards a higher, spiritual life.  Pickard writes:

This instinct symbolizes an attraction toward the spiritual existing in all men, which transcends the senses and the individual ego without denying them.  Fundamentally, the chapter is concerned with the complex problem of reconciling the discordant attraction of the wild (body) and of the good (soul).  (Pickard 1968: 86)

The connection between Thoreau's theory and the fundamental understanding of mind/body dualism in Platonic thought cannot be ignored.  Pickard sees Thoreau's understanding of the body through a lens of dualism; this dualism is characterized with the low being appetites, the high being spiritual and the harmonizer being mediation of the two.  Both the savage and spiritual aspects are necessary within human beings, but spirituality can only be achieved when the two co-exist in harmony, maintaining moderation within the soul.  Thoreau calls these instincts toward a spiritual life "the faintest but constant suggestions of his (Thoreau's) genius."  Pickard sees Thoreau's "genius" as the highest reality, the "inner being through which the Absolute is revealed."  (Pickard 1964: 86)  In Pickard's understanding of "Higher Laws," the "Absolute" is the spirituality that may be achieved when the savage within a human is being moderated by the genius.  This concept refers back to the Emersonian concept of self – reliance.  The genius, unlike the appetite instincts of the body, cannot mislead man.  The genius is a part of the nature of man that stands in contrast with man's instincts towards savagery.  The genius is often overpowered by man's savage nature because man does not have access to his genius without disciplining his savage instincts, which he must learn to do.  When directed, the genius gives man insight to the "higher laws."  Higher laws are characterized as "poetic faculties" that Thoreau associates with the imagination as "innate and beyond mere understanding which enables man's mind to perceive and ultimate supersensous reality."  (Pickard 1964: 87)  The ultimate reality is achieved when the spirituality of a human soul is guided by harmony between the savage and the genius.

            Thoreau is optimistic that most men can achieve this pure state of existence because of the powerful natural appeal of the opposing natural instincts.  As "Higher Laws" develops, Thoreau begins to equate instincts with temperance and chastity.  This reflects his faith that the genius can come to a front within man's nature and the savage instincts can be tamed.  Temperance and chastity are equalizing characteristics when applied to the natural instincts toward savagery.  The human exercise of temperance and chastity rely on the will and discipline to transform the brutish appetites of the body into direct "channels of grace and sainthood."  (Pickard 1964: 86) 

            The movement of the seasons throughout Walden is important to understanding the spiritual nature of the text.  Spring and summer time are periods full of attractions for the savage appetites of the soul.  The activity and stimulation of spring and summer drain the soul of deliberation and direction towards "higher laws."  Within Walden we see this strain throughout nature as it blooms, mates and battles during the warm months.  Fall serves as the preparation for the winter.  We see the animals scavenge for nuts and such to prepare their cabinets for the long cold winter.  Winter is a time for isolation that gives the complete man an opportunity for "religious rebirth to his vital spiritual core."  (Pickard 1964: 87)  The placement of "Higher Laws" in the text of Walden affirms the understanding of the importance of winter as a period of isolation and opportunity for rebirth. 

            The paradox of the two opposing natural instincts, savagery and genius, is developed in "Higher Laws" through Thoreau's experience that makes up the text as a whole.  The water-soul-purity image is an example of the connection of this paradox to the rest of the text.  In "The Ponds" the water is clear and pure.  The pond is an embodiment of the higher laws and of God's creation.  In "Higher Laws" Thoreau sees the pond both as an embodiment that contains God but also that contains equally the savage instinct of nature that can destroy God.  The water is cleansing, nourishing and clear but it also has a harsh side that will suffocate and devour any who dare enter its waters.  The paradox lies in the fact that the pure and divine can be destroyed by the savage instincts within nature; this is disturbing for Thoreau.  This image extends to man's existence.  Pickard finds the most disturbing part of this paradox to be that God keeps the savage destructive instincts of man alive and constantly overpowering the spiritual needs of the soul.  Thoreau does not find transcendence of the savage natural instincts of man but maintenance of temperance between the soul and the savage body as the reality of the human condition.  The natural world, where many scholars believe Thoreau has found spirituality, has failed him.  It has failed him because nature holds the savage instincts as primary, lacking the taming genius that exists in human beings.  "Higher Laws" shows that nature does not necessarily reveal the divine; it can also reveal only the savage.  In this chapter it seems that Thoreau believes that spiritual rebirth occurs only when nature is overcome.  Man is reborn spiritually when he overcomes a life directed by savagery.  This rebirth cannot occur without a deliberate focus to overcome his natural instincts throughout his life.  Thoreau is struggling with the transcendental tradition that he longs to validate with his Walden experience and the reality that the natural world may not truly be the key to transcendence.  What Thoreau must achieve at the end of "Higher Laws" is a qualification for the Walden experiment in relation to the paradoxical way he has represented the dueling parts of man and nature.  This is necessary so that his theory does not destroy the impact of the text.  Thoreau does this by telling a parable, the story of John Farmer. 

            The parable of John Farmer serves to restate the central religious meaning of the Walden experience; "that man is both natural and divine and that he must discover the spiritual laws which are a part of nature and yet beyond it."  (Pickard 1964: 90)  Pickard provides a detailed and lengthy interpretation of this parable that shows the reader of Walden how to escape the paradoxical struggle Thoreau presents in "Higher Laws".  John Farmer is a folk hero for this text.  He is an everyman, but his occupation as a farmer is very important because his profession brings him into closeness with nature.  This makes him "instinctively responsive to nature's spiritual significance."  (Pickard 1964: 90)  John Farmer sits on his doorstep, which Pickard sees as a threshold or gateway to his house, society and nature.  The action of sitting at this threshold has prepared him for the intimations of higher law.  Before he sat down, he washed himself of the dirt of a hard days work.  This act has implications both of baptism (making John Farmer spiritually ready) and of a shift from being a brute man to an intellectual man.  Furthermore, the use of water is a symbol for rebirth and purity throughout the book. 

The time is set on a September evening, symbolizing the transition of the seasons.  The transition to winter after the fall's harvest is a transition into "enclosure, isolation, and ultimately spiritual renewal."  (Pickard 1964: 90)  The cool darkness of the evening in which John Farmer is resting comes after a hard days work (activity) in the hot sun.  This is also symbolic of the change of season that is about to occur.  John Farmer is resting while many of his neighbors are worried about the possibility of frost.  This is not of concern to him.  He sees beyond the danger of the frost to its spiritual significance. 

            John Farmer is partially engrossed with thinking about the day's activities when he begins to hear the music of a flute.  The music is symbolic of man's slow emergence to divinity.  For man to reach a state in which he knows the divine, he must slowly overcome his appetites and train himself to let "higher laws" guide his life.  This is a gradual process.  Entranced by the music, John Farmer realizes that the products of his labor and mental planning are preparatory for the spiritual work to come.  "As he responds more fully to the music, time and space are transcended, for the notes do away with 'the street, the village, and the state in which he lived.'"  (Pickard 1964: 91)  He finds a new divine state of blessedness. 

            Thoreau does not give us a formula to achieve this mystical experience.  Rather, we are left wondering what John Farmer must do to maintain this transcended state.  According to Pickard's interpretation, we find that he must return to his labor and through it seek the higher laws.  He must hold a strict spiritual economy so that he may mesh his vision with his actual life.  The mind must make its way back to the body so that it may redeem it.  And John Farmer must treat his body with respect, as it is the house both of his natural instinct but also of his instinct towards higher law.  The labor of farming unites the three necessary aspects of John Farmers life: austerity, redemption and respect.  The parable closes with John Farmer's attempt "to harmonize the physical and the spiritual."  (Pickard 1964: 90 – 92)

                                                                                                       i.  Response

Pickard's view of the purpose of "Higher Laws" within the framework of Walden is excellent.  The paradoxical nature of humans is a major concern for Thoreau throughout the entire text.  It is in reading and focusing on "Higher Laws" that we may be able to understand the consistent philosophical context for the rest of Walden.  For many readers Walden appears to be a text that lacks arguments.  "Higher Laws" provides the philosophical and religious foundation for the text.  Through the other chapters we see an account of Thoreau's experience at Walden Pond and the application of his theory to real life.  Pickard's interpretation of the Parable of John Farmer is contextually rich.  However, the conclusion that he draws from the parable and thus Thoreau's philosophy can be refuted.  Although Pickard believes that John Farmer has succeeded by returning to his everyday life after hearing the music of the "higher law" one could argue that John Farmer has missed the opportunity to experience transcendence by following the music.  In returning to his ordinary life, he has turned back to the world predetermined for him by society rather than knowing something new.  We see that even a life that is extremely connected to the land and thus the natural world can be stagnant for the individual. 

            The characterization of Walden as a sacred text has a great deal of foundation in Thoreau's study of several Native American spiritual traditions, the Hindu tradition and the Bible (specifically the Book of Ezekiel).  The project of Walden is to impact the lives of individuals, and gaining peace and understanding within one's spiritual life is often seen as a stepping-stone for movement towards positive change in life.  Cavell writes that in Walden, Thoreau commits himself to writing a kind of scripture.  In writing scripture Thoreau must fulfill several traditional requirements such as poetry, parable, "a smaller epic or two" and some sort of account of creation and redemption.  (Cavell 1972: 14)  However, the literary commitment to fulfilling these qualities in Walden does not qualify the soul purpose of the text to being one of scripture.  Cavell writes: "From a critical point of view, he must be readable on various distinct levels."  (Cavell 1972: 15)  The level of reading Walden as scripture is simply one of these many levels that Thoreau skillfully instills into the text.      

              V.               Walden as a Critique of Society

Much of the literature about Thoreau presents the idea that he is calling to his readers to revolt against the conformity of society.  To discuss Walden as a book that is a critique on society, a variety of aspects must be considered.  From the two previous sections we see elements of this fundamental premise in the message of the Walden experience.  Wolf's interpretation of Walden includes the necessity of shift in social norms in the way humans perceive themselves as elevated above the natural world rather than as a part of the ecosystem.  From this perspective, Wolf believes that Thoreau teaches readers to be responsible to the ecosystem because it is the greater whole of which their lives are all apart.  Wolf sees Thoreau as revolting against the understanding of life that has been constructed by society to maintain a culture that separates man from nature.  Pickard's analysis of "High Laws" as a spiritual guide to the religious experience of Walden also relies on the rejection of socially defined notions of spirituality and traditional religion.  It is very evident that Thoreau does not agree with social constructions of thought.  His critiques of parts of society are charged with the necessity that individuals must learn to think for themselves.  Many scholars have developed various perspectives on Walden as a critique of society.  Society is a term that I am using to describe American social norms and traditions.  The various suggested analysises range from understanding the text as a charge for readers to reject society as a whole to understanding the text as Thoreau's attempt to change social norms. 

            Michael R. Fischer gives an analysis of Thoreau's philosophy in Walden that gives foundation to the claim that Thoreau is calling for a rejection of society and for the implementation of individualism.  Fischer begins his essay with Audre Lorde's famous question: "How can we build our house without borrowing the master's tools?"  (Fischer 1992: 96)  Lorde writes to a society in which people are trying to overcome oppression that is built into language, economy and education.  She is concerned that we can never truly overcome social oppression within a system that is the foundation of such oppression.  Similarly, her question is relevant to the greater quest of Thoreau's philosophy.  The concern for Thoreau is focused on how it is possible for individuals to emerge from a society that places human lives into its structure before any human even has a chance to explore their self.  Fischer is believes that Thoreau is trying to wake up his reader from the trance of socially defined norms.  He draws evidence from Walden for this claim because Thoreau's assertion that "we are sound asleep nearly half the time" requires him having knowledge that he is truly awake.  (Fischer 1992: 97)  Thoreau believes that we are "sound asleep" half of the time because we let society's norms guide us through life rather than making our own set of norms.  Thoreau's confidence that he knows what it really means to be awake is to know a series of truths presented in Walden: "…to know truth from falsehood, necessity from accident, simplicity from unwarranted complexity, purity from contamination, fact from fiction, nature from artifice, freedom from slavery and reality from appearance."  (Fischer 1992: 97- 98)  This is a critique of society because generally society is sound asleep and unaware of these truths that Thoreau can know as an individual.  Fischer believes that even though Thoreau is aware that his ideas represent his own point of view, he speaks with a universal voice so that his opinions are offered to his readers as if they are for everyone.  He does this not to offer a substitute for society's opinions.  Rather, because these opinions are not society's but an individual's, they have greater merit than the social ideals.  This is a critique on society because the value is placed on Thoreau's thought as an individual rather than on society's collective ideas.  Thoreau sees standards and norms that are set forth by social convention as oppressive to the development of a culture of individuals.  

In Walden we see Thoreau's emphasis on the complexity of us speaking to each other when he discusses that his home provides too small of quarters to have conversation.  He would rather talk to his neighbors from across the lake, believing that distance is necessary for us to talk to each other.  Fischer believes that the greater philosophical consequence of Thoreau's ideas on the necessity of distance is that "we can only come together if we are apart, if we exist as individuals."  (Fischer 1992: 100)  This is a critique on human mannerisms to communicate with each other. Society dictates that we gather together to communicate, often lead by a leader who takes us through discussions on religion and politics.  We come together in small quarters to form norms and standards.  By suggesting that we speak to each other from across the lake, Thoreau is suggesting that we make room for our own ideas before we begin to communicate with each other.  This is something that is lost when we gather in small quarters and become common members of social groups that hold norms and values.  Thoreau is not asking only for the readers to think for themselves but he is asking the reader to take himself out of the traditional relationship between man and his peers (society) to see a new way of relating to each other. 

Reginald L. Cook examines Walden in relationship to the ancient rites of man.  In this interpretation of the text he brings up several points at which Thoreau is in conflict with society.  Cook believes that through the text we see series of ancient rites that bring Thoreau to another level of existence that has been lost in modern society.  Thoreau's interest in bringing the ancient rites of man into practice through rituals is a critique on the way that modernity has directed existence in such a manner that individuals do not remember or practice individual rituals outside of society.  Cook does not claim that there is a set series of rituals that are necessary for man to practice, but rather that in his time at Walden Pond Thoreau practices rituals that are individual and that would not be allowed within traditional social structure.  Cooks interpretation of Walden from the perspective of myth is like Cavell's understanding of the text as scripture.  Thoreau achieves the level of the text as myth by fulfilling several qualifications for this literary style.  Cook writes: "A more searching look discloses ritual forms of purgation and sacrifice, formulas of prayer, a quest, or an ordeal, but whatever form, their re-enactment enlightens the mysteries of ritual consciously or unconsciously preformed."  (Cook 1968: 94)  Cook believes that what makes Walden identifiable with the tradition of mythology is way that Thoreau chose his quest.  Thoreau chose to go to Walden Pond at a time in his life when he was searching for a new perspective on reality.  Thoreau did not go to Walden Pond to escape society but rather to confront society.  He writes:

Thoreau found by living the life he imagined, he could free himself from social conformity and activate a state of mind where new, universal, and more liberal laws were established around and within him, which is to say he discovered that he could unite harmoniously with the conscious and unconscious forces of life.  By living a life of 'voluntary poverty,' he solved his economic problems by enjoying 'a wide halo of ease and leisure,' he was free to tap the deeper instinctual forces.  (Cook 1968: 95-96)

In this passage, Cook deals with the confrontation of society in the economic and personal realm.  Thoreau actively chose to confront society by showing how he could live life through an individual set of rituals and various other activities that existed outside of society's norms.  This act is confrontational because Thoreau did it publicly, only a mile from any neighbor, so that all of Concord could know where he was and what he was doing.  By turning away from society and moving to Walden Pond Thoreau actively confronts the society that he believes is directing its members away from lives as individuals. 

                                                                                                       i.  Response

Both Fischer and Cook provide interesting perspectives on Thoreau's various critiques of society.  It is clear that Thoreau does not value the social norms and traditions that American society holds.  Fischer's interest in Thoreau's writing that deals with taking to one's neighbors across the lake rather than a house or room is thought provoking.  From Fischer's theory we see Thoreau's desire to change the way we communicate with each other.  While this is a critique on society, I believe that it is not an advocation of life of isolation.  In Thoreau's various discussions about the interaction of animals and nature there is a persistent value placed on their harmony as an ecosystem.  Similarly, I believe that Thoreau places value on community.  Fischer puts forth the idea that only when we are separate can we come together.  Social interaction and community between human beings is a necessary part of their existence and nature.  Thoreau places value on this part of the human world.  Walter Harding, the long time president of the Thoreau Society, comments on the interpretations of Walden as a call to society to change so that people return to an ordinary, simple life.  He writes: "It was only through a profound misunderstanding of the book Walden that the idea that such an abandonment of civilization was Thoreau's aim ever got into circulation."  (Harding 1988: 87)  Thoreau never intended to charge his readers to turn away from community or civilization, his interest was in asking them to turn to themselves and find their individuality.  Thoreau writes: "Instead of noblemen, let us have noble villages of men.  If it is necessary, omit one bridge over the river, go around a little there, and throw one arch at least over the darker gulf of ignorance which surrounds us."  (Thoreau 1958: 82)  To throw an arch over the "darker gulf of ignorance which surrounds us" is to move from an easy passage over the lighted river to challenge to unknown.  Society, led by noblemen of various sorts, has built easy bridges for us to pass throw life.  Thoreau wants us to break away from the easy passages that society has structured for us.  Only then can we know the world that is outside of the reality that social structure has led us to believe as absolute truths.

            Cook's perspective on Walden is more problematic.  The foundation for his alliance of Thoreau's quest with traditional mythology is that Thoreau chose to confront society and go to Walden Pond.  I disagree.  Thoreau went to Walden Pond at a point in his life when he realized he needed to search within himself.  Thoreau writes:

I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.  (Thoreau 1958: 67)

Hear we clearly see the purpose of Thoreau's move into the woods was not to confront society with another way of living life outside of its norms, but rather to learn about the life that society had removed from modern existence.  Cook is correct in the assumption that Thoreau chose his quest but mistaken in his purpose.  Thoreau was not forced to leave Concord and his friends.  He chose to try to live another way of life.  He chose to confront his ignorance about the natural world and a life of solitude.  He made these decisions to expand his personal understanding of himself and his place in the world.  This was not meant to revolutionize the way other people within the norms of American society lived.

            A clear understanding of Thoreau's critique of society is found at the beginning of Walden in the chapter entitled "Economy."  "Economy" is a very detailed chapter in which Thoreau examines many of the staples of his contemporary American society such as factory production, clothes, and religion.  The tone of this chapter begins with his critique our roles within the workforce that are bond to our lives by what we perceive as necessity.  Thoreau writes:

I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns cattle and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of.  Better if they had been born in open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. (Thoreau 1958: 4)

The young men of Concord are living lives that were determined for them by their birth into a structure that has been upheld for generations and generations of humankind.  Thoreau's interest in these young men is not only a sorrow that they have a clouded vision of the structure that binds them; he also sees the great struggle that these young men have to leave their structure even if their vision becomes clear.  We see these young men in John Farmer; a man bound to his life even after hearing the music of transcendence.  The struggle to walk away from the structure of one's "seeming fate" is linked to our understanding of "necessity."  (Thoreau 1958: 5)  In adulthood, if we are challenged with the face of the possibility of a life free of society's structure we foolishly reject it because of a fear of lacking what we consider necessities.  How can you walk away from the farm or the office when a mortgage is owed, tuitions must be paid and a family depends on you to maintain their standard of living?  Who will buy you daughter's shoes for her Easter dress this spring?  How will you have flour to make bread?  These plaguing questions keep fear and foolishness leashed to man who faces an opportunity to walk outside the lines of the structure that has bound him since birth.  Thoreau writes: "Most of the luxuries, and many so-called comforts of life, are not only dispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." (Thoreau 1958: 11)  His perception of humankind, free of hindrance and structure, is humankind constructed of individuals who love wisdom and let it, not material, guide their lives.  Thoreau believes that a life guided by wisdom is a simple one, marked by independence and trust.  These characteristics of Thoreau's critique of society are not the focus of Fischer or Cooks interpretations of the Walden.   In looking to "Economy" to truly see Thoreau's basic problems with society, an alliance can be made from his critique to his overall challenge to the individual in Walden. 

                VI.              Final Interpretation of Thoreau's Walden

Each of the interpretations of Walden that I have discussed holds merit in understanding Thoreau's philosophy.  Readers must be able to see Thoreau in relation to the transcendental tradition and as an author outside of prescribed doctrines such as romanticism or transcendentalism.  Context, including education, economic situation, and time in history is necessary to include when examining any great thinker.  In my interpretation of Thoreau, I see the merit of understanding Walden as an ecological, spiritual and social critique text.  From this point I must make my argument that in Walden, Thoreau is calling for his readers to lose the definitions of society and enact a paradigm shift in their lives towards individuality so that they may truly know themselves.  Such a life requires deliberate action and consciousness of one's place within the world.  This life is in contrast with a life that has been structured for you to fit into social norms by your economic status, family or traditional vocation.  When you live in a structured life of society, you are part of the whole, not a unique entity.  Through this self-knowledge and self-exploration, we may learn to see ourselves as unique entities in the world.  My understanding of Thoreau may seem to be allied with the structure of arguments that see Walden as a critique on society.  Thoreau, both in his life and his philosophy, returns after his time in the woods to society to live.  This is not a rejection of society, but a return.  Cavell writes, "That was the point of the experiment, not to learn that the life at Walden was marvelous, but to learn to leave it."  (Cavell 1972: 44)  Thoreau's two years and two months at Walden Pond was a deliberate time from which he could gain knowledge about life in the wild, including knowledge about himself as a part of that ecosystem of lives that he saw in nature.  This time was necessary for him because he had to learn about himself in order to be able to return to his friends and life with an awareness of self that he could not gain from living within society.  Thoreau's return to Concord and to a life that was within the constraints of a social system that he so distained is an act not of giving up, but of moving forward into another phase.  Thoreau writes:

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there.  Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.  It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves.  (Thoreau 1958: 238)

Thoreau's critique of lives that are allied with the beaten track for individual's lives is strengthened by a constant reference to being awake as opposed to being asleep throughout Walden.  Thoreau sees his life and movement at Walden Pond as being an awakening experience.  In living his life deliberately and simply there he is awake whereas the people who are living their lives "insensibly" are asleep.  Being awake is a metaphor used throughout Walden to describe the life that Thoreau has chosen in relation to the lives of those who remain inside their structured place in society.  In becoming awake, one leaves the comforts of a set path and is challenged to hear the music of a different drummer and follow it.   In leaving Walden Pond, he is maintaining a direction in his life that requires the stimulation and thought that keeps him awake.  This movement in life is what separates Thoreau from John Farmer; John Farmer could not separate himself from the beaten path and follow the music that awakened him. 

Cavell has studied the way Thoreau used the term "nature."  Thoreau makes reference both to nature in the sense of the natural world as it is separated from humans and nature in the sense of human nature.  Cavell presents an analysis of the dual use of the term nature that illuminates Thoreau's brilliant constructions of philosophy.  Thoreau shows the reader that we must overcome our human nature.  To do this we must look to the natural world to see what beauty is possible in existence in the world that we do not achieve simply by living by our human nature.  Human nature guides us to conform to the pack.  Conformity is a simple route that does not require a regular thought process and refined natural instincts to live.  Thoreau's experience at Walden Pond shows us what beauty and understanding of the self and world lies outside of a life of conformity.  We alone are responsible for disciplining our lives to follow the music that John Farmer hears.  To do this we must deliberately live with self-knowledge of our human nature so that it does not overcome one's individual self.  Living deliberately requires a continuous conscious activity within the self against its nature to conform to the easy route of life, a route defined by social norms and standards rather than the individual.

            Walden's philosophy for the individual reader is radical.  Thoreau believes that humans who have accomplished transcendence of their human nature will then live deliberately to maintain their new way of life.  This deliberate life requires that they maintain a constant work to stay awake, guarding against all human tendencies to conform to the life already molded for them by society.  James Edwards writes on Walden believing that Thoreau intends to challenge his readers to live their lives deliberately.  Such a deliberate life leads to living with an awareness of the facts of life and the action of confronting the facts of the present.  "For him (Thoreau), what blocks our 'improvement' is our ever-repeated failure to live – as he says – deliberately, our failure self-consciously to front the actual facts of our condition with them…"  (Edwards 2003: 3)  Living deliberately has the effect of living ethically.  Thoreau's view of those who are asleep, that is living a life of conformity, in their lives is that they miss the events and facts that they could be affecting.  Thoreau's critique is of those human beings who let life and the world happen without activity and individuality as a deliberate focus and assertion throughout their lives.  Human beings that live the life of conformity take no personal interest or responsibility in life.  They are not active in making ethical decisions that affect their neighbors in society or their neighbor the natural world.  He sees the laziness of human nature that prevents the majority from being interested and deliberate in directing both their actions and the impact of the human world on both the natural world and humankind.  By living deliberately, Thoreau has taken personal responsibility to be ethical in all of his actions and relationships with the entire ecosystem that makes up our world.  For example, in "Higher Laws" we see that Thoreau is aware of himself, his instincts towards savagery, and he deliberately chooses not to tear into a woodchuck even though his body is craving its meat.  Thoreau is deliberate in regulating himself in the greater world. This is the development of a personal ethic through deliberate living.  Edwards' understanding of Thoreau's charge to live a deliberate life as a charge to develop and maintain a personal ethic that is lacking in society is a clear statement that can be identified throughout Thoreau's work not only in Walden, but also in Civil Disobedience and various poems.  This personal ethic does not have to be tested in the wild, but can be enacted by any human within the traditional social world as long as they are awake and deliberate in all of their actions.

            Understanding Walden as a text that asks its readers to make a paradigm shift within their lives, to live deliberately as individuals, to reject the comfort and security that society has offered them in its predetermined structure is preferable to single-layer interpretations of the text.  Walden as an ecological text, as a sacred text or as a critique of society looks only to single-layers of Thoreau's deeper meaning.  My interpretation of Thoreau seeks to establish a foundation from which each layer may be connected and understood as a series of interrelated concepts.  The natural relates to the spiritual and learning to see these aspects of life requires rejecting society.  However, we find that there is much more required of the self, of the individual in order to live a life that can achieve knowledge of the higher laws.  In "Conclusion" Thoreau writes:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment:  that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success in uncommon hours...  In proportion, as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.  If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them.  (Thoreau 1958: 240)

The readers of Walden are not being asked to demolish all that they know.  Simply, Thoreau asks them to build their own foundations.  Foundations for belief systems, religion, vocation and much more requires a deliberate search within one's self, ranging from the soul to one's relation to the world, in order to be the builder of your own life.  You castle will be strong if you make the effort to secure it.  Similarly, the single-layers of Walden that have been uncovered in this project require a foundation.  I believe that that foundation is Thoreau's belief in a life of deliberate individualism. 

Reading the philosophy of Walden requires a deliberate attention to the text and all of its various parts.  The act of reading this text carefully and truly looking to Thoreau's call that we live as individuals, awake to our action and the effect of society on the world, is the application of the greater message Thoreau has for life.  While making associations and interpretations of Walden as an ecological text, sacred text or social critique can be validated by the text, such readings avoid the deliberate necessity of examining every aspect of Thoreau's experiment.  Making record of his movement to and from Walden Pond in this text serves as an example of the application of an individual's capacity to transcend a life determined by either society or his/her human nature to become awake and know him/her true self. 


Cavell, Stanley. 1972. The Senses of Walden.  New York: The Viking Press.Cook, Reginald L. 1968. Ancient Rites at Walden.  In Twentieth Century               Interpretations of Walden, Maynard Mack ed.  Pp 93 – 100.  Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice – Hall Inc.

Edwards, James C. unpublished manuscript.  2003

Fischer, Michael R. 1992.  Walden and the politics of Contemporary Literary Theory. In New Essays on Walden, Robert F. Sayre ed. Pp 95 – 113.  Cambridge:   Cambridge University Press.

Harding, Walter. 1988.  Five Ways of Looking at Walden. In Critical Essays on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Pp. 85 – 95.  Boston: G. K. Hall.

McGregor, Robert Kuhn. 1997.  A Wider View of the Universe: Henry Thoreau’s Study of Nature.  Chicago, Illinois: The University of Illinois Press.

McIntosh, James.  1974. Thoreau as a Romantic Naturalist: His Shifting Stance Towards Nature.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 

Pickard, John B. 1968. The Religion of “Higher Laws.” In  Twentieth Century Interpretations of Walden, Maynard Mack ed.  Pp 85 – 92. Englewood Cliffs,New   Jersey: Prentice – Hall Inc.

Thoreau, Henry David. 1958. Walden, and on the Duty of Civil Disobedience.  New York, New York: Harper & Roe, Publishers, Inc.

Wolf, William J.1974. Thoreau: Mystic, Prophet, Ecologist. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: United Church Press.