Agreeing with Burroughs’ Assessment of Thoreau

Burroughs has a fairly accurate assessment of Thoreau on essentially all of the points he raises from Thoreau’s excessive self interest and his poorly related analogies and morals to his characterization of Thoreau not as a mystic, transcendentalist, and natural philosopher but as a poor natural philosopher and scientist more interested in a study of pure subjectivity. There are a few fine points within Burroughs’ criticism that are particularly relevant to some of the issues I had with Thoreau. The most bothersome part of Thoreau addressed by Burroughs is his overriding self-interest that establishes Thoreau’s ideology as functional for himself yet useless for other people that do not have the liberty of responsibility (or resources for that matter) to live and think as he does. Another issue appropriately tackled by Burroughs is that Thoreau emphasized the need for a connection with nature yet negates the essential need for community that is a natural fixture of human nature reflected in a “pure” natural setting by primates.

Burroughs criticizes Thoreau’s subjectivity in a rather straightforward manner, stating that “His philosophy begins and ends in himself, or is entirely subjective…and there is often an expression of contempt for his fellow countrymen, and the rest of mankind, and their aims in life, which makes the judicious grieve” (Bourroughs, 45). He has little capacity to analyze the point of view of another, able only to see through his own eyes which are clouded by the uncompromising idealism that seems so plain to him yet is entirely lacking in utility for those lacking the means. This is exemplified in the passage from Walking when he is discussing the monotony and starvation of--gasp!— holding down a steady job. The passage reads “I, who cannot stay in my chamber for a single day without acquiring some rust…am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months…” (Thoreau, 263). It is apparent that Thoreau has not been “broken”, so to speak, to the monotony of working. He says he “cannot” remain indoors all day. This is a falsehood, as it would be more accurate for him to say that he will not as opposed to cannot. He has the freedom of means and the entire lack of responsibility that allows him to go out walking all day instead of working and to him it is shocking that someone would devote themselves to such a pursuit and that they would not all together, en masse, throw the yoke from upon their backs. He utterly fails to take into account the pulverizingly heavy load of responsibility that many of these people are functioning under with the intent of supporting their families and giving their children a better future life in addition to others they may have to support possibly combined with the desire to fulfill the legacies of their namesake. He looks at it from an outside perspective, as a feat of endurance, as an accomplishment while the people he is writing so disparagingly about look at it as their reality, their purpose, a source of dignity amidst the degradations of class, what is absolutely necessary for them to fulfill what are real necessities in life. He considers them crazy yet from the perspective of the workers, they would likely consider him crazy in an equal or greater magnitude for a frivolous, idle waste of his life. Even though his philosophy would never work for those he is criticizing he criticizes anyway with the apparent conviction that he is superior for the enlightenment he has gained through walking around.

Burroughs mentions Thoreau’s solitary nature and implies that searching for a connection with nature as his charge allowed Thoreau to avoid other people which contributes to his abject subjectivity and suggests that Thoreau’s disdain for civilization might really have been (at least in part) a disdain for people. Burroughs says it quite plainly that Thoreau “[walked] to get away from people…” (Burroughs, 47). Any philosophy on life needs to take into account a considerable number of human factors to be viable yet here Thoreau is said to have tried to escape social interaction in favor of relating nature to himself as opposed to himself and others. His disdain for other people is best reflected in a passage from Walking in which he is discussing the origin of the word “village”. The passage reads “Hence, too, apparently, the Latin word vilis and our vile: also villian. This suggests what kind of degeneracy villagers are liable to” (Thoreau, 265). So apparently those that live in a village (or civilization) are liable to vicissitude and treachery, they are inherent degenerates by virtue of living together in a community. This utter disparaging of others and communal life means that Thoreau only lived in and of himself and that therefore his philosophy could only apply to himself (this is aside from that which he read and assimilated/perverted). In a consideration of “pure” nature of both nature itself and of humans relation to nature, it seems that any collection of humans in even the smallest grouping (the village) is some sort of perversion that makes them “liable to degeneracy” yet primates exist in communities in a purely natural state suggesting that community would be integral in a “pure”, natural association between man and nature.

I cite, therefore, I am (literate)

Thoreau, Henry D. Walden Civil Disobedience and Other Writings. 3Ch/Art: Walden; Walking p. 260-287. pub. WW Norton 2008

Mazel, David (ed). A Century of Early Ecocriticism. Ch./Art Excerpt p. 26-47. pub. University of Georgia Press 2001


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by christys21 on October 19, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    Thoreau really does focus on nothing but how his thoeries suit him, and no one else. Rather than thinking openly and in a “community manner,” his thoughts stop at his self-interest and nothing more.
    I really enjoyed the line Burroughs says, “Thoreau called himself a mystic, and a trancendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot. But the least of these was the natural philosopher” (pg. 45) Every analogy Thoreau makes, lacks science and reasoning. Wheither he is correct or not, he states things as he sees fit, and worries no more of whether his interpretation is correct or incorrect.
    Thoreau lacks thought and close analysis of nature and has no other goal than to amuse himself with the pieces of nature he sees.

    Mazel, David (ed). A Century of Early Ecocriticism. Ch./Art Excerpt p. 44-49. pub. University of Georgia Press 2001

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