Today, Thoreau's words are quoted with feeling by liberals, socialists, anarchists, libertarians, and conservatives alike.
— Ken Kifer
Before Aldo Leopold, Loren Eiseley, and Sig Olson-
~~ there was Thoreau.
Before Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.-
~~ there was Thoreau.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was a writer, philosopher, naturalist, abolitionist, and political activist. Part of the “Transcendentalist Movement”, he is best known for Walden and Civil Disobedience.
My interest in Thoreau began in the 60s, of course, when he was one of the mentors and heroes of both the anti-war and new environmental movements. It was recently reignited by a conversation last year with an early twenty-something who was clearly conservative and a Trump supporter. He said to me one day, “I have just found a great book that I really like. It’s kind of old though.” My first thought was naturally Thoreau. Who else but him would be an “old” writer that captures the imagination. I was right. This young man then went on to quote the opening of Civil Disobedience where Thoreau famously wrote that “that government is best which governs least.”
I didn’t try to dissuade him from his liking Thoreau, instead hoping that getting into reading it would perhaps move him a little away from his right-wing views. I have no idea how Thoreau himself would have looked at our 21st Century American government nor how he would respond to it. As an anti-Mexican War and anti-slavery activist (the reasons he wrote Civil Disobedience) I am hopeful he would not be on the Tea-Party side as this young man expected. From his willingness to go to jail if only for one night on a refusal to pay taxes to support a war, I would guess he would not be happy with some of the current budget and tax proposals.
Underneath and supporting his political style, Thoreau was part of the transcendentalist movement of his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Transcendentalists are strong believers in the power of the individual. It focuses primarily on personal freedom. Their beliefs are closely linked with those of the Romantics but differ by an attempt to embrace or, at least, to not oppose the empiricism of science…. Transcendentalists desire to ground their religion and philosophy in principles not based on, or falsifiable by, physical experience, but rather those that derive from the inner spiritual or mental essence of the human.For Thoreau this was based on an almost intuitive interest and understanding of spirituality.
one of his first memories was of staying awake at night "looking through the stars to see if I could see God behind them."Among other things this spirituality took him to Walden Pond for a two-year period when he took the notes and started writing his famous book named after that pond. These are not separate areas of interest, each in its own compartment. The philosophy and spirituality of Thoreau are intertwined. His political stance fits into his view of the world which fits into his environmental understandings.
As I thought about this year’s Lenten season I felt I wanted to take a look at things from a little different angle. For the last year and a half, since Advent 2016, I have been looking at politics and faith and resistance. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was my guide last year and I grew immensely in my thoughts. Advent of 2017 was tying the themes of Advent to resistance to injustice, racism, and hatred. It is important to me- and part of my unshakable faith- that our faith as individuals must inform and expand our political and social views.
Thoreau is a perfect person to help with this.
I have chosen a number of Thoreau quotes to use for Sundays in Lent through Easter. I will use them as starting points for some reflections and interpretations. They will start this Sunday, Feb 18. I am not sure what I am going to do on Wednesdays in Lent. Today, Ash Wednesday, is obviously this introduction. I will see as we progress what happens, perhaps quotes from those who Thoreau influenced. [I have moved The Tuning Slide posts on this blog to Thursday for the next seven weeks. They will still be posted on Wednesday on the Tuning Slide blog.]
For today, let me end with a quote from his mentor and friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is perhaps Thoreau’s greatest achievement:
To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.