I was invited to deliver a paper at an academic conference on “The Uses and Abuses of Thoreau at 200” in Gothenburg, Sweden the first week in May. My topic was “Thoreau’s Philosophy of Self-Cultivation,” which I summarize in this blog. If anyone would like a copy of the entire paper, I would be happy to send them one.
In the opening chapter of Walden, Henry Thoreau writes, “nowadays” there are “professors of philosophy, but not philosophers,” and he goes on to assert, “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.” The true philosopher “is not fed, sheltered, clothed, warmed, like his contemporaries,” but maintains “his vital heat by better methods than other men.” The “better methods” he alludes to amount to a spiritual practice that he developed and described—under the rubric of self-culture—not only in Walden, but also in his essays, journals, and letters.
In this paper I compare Thoreau’s philosophy of self-cultivation with similar philosophies developed and practiced in Greece and Rome in the West and India and China in the East. Thoreau himself was well-versed in the teachings of the Stoics and Epicureans, having studied them in college. The Stoics sought happiness through harmony with nature. Happiness—defined as tranquillity , or the well-being of the soul—was achieved by means of spiritual exercises which included leisure, solitude, contemplation, simplicity, and walks in nature. The Epicureans pursued the enjoyment of life in the here and now. They sought to maximize pleasure by minimizing wants and by engaging in certain kinds of spiritual exercises, including leisure, conversation, reading, proper diet and exercise, and the contemplation of nature. Although Thoreau didn’t claim to be either one, his own philosophy of self-cultivation nevertheless combined elements of both.
Thoreau’s philosophy of self-cultivation also has affinities with similar philosophies in India and China. He was especially taken with the yoga teachings of the Bhagavad Gita which instruct practitioners to release themselves from the petty affairs of everyday life, withdraw to a solitary place and live alone, exercise control over mind and body, dispense with personal possessions, and meditate on the Atman. This may have inspired him to live at Walden Pond and engage in his own choice of austerities. He was also attracted to the teachings of Confucius and Mencius and complied a series of quotations from their writings for a column in the Dial magazine. Confucian philosophy emphasized the cultivation of sage-hood through the practice of virtue and the exercise of conscience. This was in keeping with the virtue ethics taught at Harvard College and contributed to his argument in the essay on “Civil Disobedience.”
While he was influenced by these philosophies of self-cultivation, Thoreau did not personally identify with any of them. He was better informed about them and was more sympathetic towards them than anyone else in his day. He, like his Transcendentalist colleagues, was drawn to the view that such philosophies represented a form of perennial wisdom just as true for us today as it was to the ancients. In the “Monday” chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau surveys the spiritual philosophies of East and West and concludes the following:
There has always been the same amount of light in the world…. Always the laws of light are the same, but the modes and degrees of seeing it vary. The gods are partial to no era, but steadily shines their light in the heavens, while the light of the beholder is turned to stone. There was but one sun and the eye from the first. The ages have not added a new ray to the one, nor altered a fibre of the other.