Thoreau’s Philosophy of Self-Cultivation

barry-andrews-in-gothenburg-sweden

Barry M. Andrews in Gothenburg, Sweden

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.

“That Which Was Ecstasy Shall Become Daily Bread”

EmersonLast year I was invited to submit a paper to a special issue of Religions, an on-line journal, on Transcendentalism and Religious Experience. Titled “That Which Was Ecstasy Shall Become Daily Bread,” the subject of the paper is the nature of Emerson’s mysticism and its subsequent influence on Unitarian theology in the 19th and 20th centuries. Emerson never called himself a mystic, but he believed that we are subject to ecstasies, or revelations of the Universal Mind common to all people. Such experiences represent “an influx of the Divine Mind into our mind. It is an ebb of the Individual rivulet before the flowing surges of the Sea of Life.” This experience—which can only be described as a mystical experience—is at the heart of all religions and common to all people.

Some have questioned whether Emerson was a mystic, since he did not seem to fit the mold of Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross. What is distinctive about Emerson’s mysticism is that it is non-sectarian, holistic and natural. For Emerson, God is impersonal, not personal, and immanent in the world, not apart from it. His brand of mysticism is best expressed in this passage from his famous essay, “The Over-Soul”: “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal one. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.”

Although Emerson realized that moments of illumination are few and far between, he found such moments to be of great significance. He also knew that they could not be summoned at will. Nevertheless, he believed that people could improve the odds of their reception through cultivating the soul. This he sought to do by engaging in the spiritual practices of self-culture. He thought that society would be enriched by those who were able to communicate the wisdom gained in such experiences, but he never considered that illumination was reserved for a certain class of persons. The biggest obstacle is “that the community in which we live will hardly bear to be told that every man should be open to ecstasy or a divine illumination, and his daily walk elevated by intercourse with the spiritual world.”

This is because daily life is lived on a mundane level. We are accustomed to dealing with the everyday world in a practical, pragmatic way. We get up in the morning and go about our business thinking that this is the only reality there is. Empirical ways of knowing predominate over intuitive modes of thought. It is for these reasons that Emerson felt our life, as we live it, is common and mean, and sought to find a proper balance between the realities of everyday life and the demands of the spirit, in the hope that, as put it in his 1840 Dial essay, “Thoughts on Modern Literature,” “that which was ecstasy shall become daily bread.”

[Excerpted from “Religions” 2017, Vol. 8 No. 4, 75; doi:10.3390/rel8040075]

I invite you to download my paper from the following site: http://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/8/4/75

Why Transcendentalist Spirituality?

People often ask me why I am attracted to the Transcendentalists. For the Greeks and Romans, to be a philosopher was not to craft subtle arguments, but to live a philosophical life. As Thoreau said in Walden, “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates.” For the ancients, philosophy was akin to what today we call spirituality. I, too, aspire to live a philosophical or spiritual life, and for me the Transcendentalists offer the best model for doing so.

Their discipline, or praxis, was termed self-culture. For them, culture was not high-brow entertainment, as it is for us today. It did not “consist in polishing or varnishing,” Emerson said. Rather, culture meant cultivation. And the self in question is not the self of modern psychology, but the soul. Self-culture is the cultivation of the soul. Their spiritual exercises included contemplation, solitude, walks in nature, reading, journal writing, conversation, simple living, and action from principle.

Theoria, for the Greeks and Romans, was wisdom gained through contemplation. The wisdom of the Transcendentalists consisted in the belief that there is a cosmos, or unity of nature, including human nature. It is best expressed in these words of Emerson: “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.”

My own spiritual practice has been enriched and guided by what I have learned from the Transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau above all.