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Philosophy and Literature 25.1 (2001) 59-74

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Thoreau Among His Heroes

Ryan Patrick Hanley

"To live alone one has to be a beast or a god--says Aristotle.
But there's a third case: one has to be both--a philosopher." 1


For a book that implores its readers to "simplify, simplify," Walden has more than its fair share of obscurity. Lovers of simplicity have long mined it for its clear and comforting maxims, only to leave behind more than a few tough nuts for those who incline towards the esoteric--which, for Thoreau, is the essence of the philosophical. To the former set of readers he offers an apology: "You will pardon some obscurities, for there are more secrets in my trade than in most men's, and yet not voluntarily kept, but inseparable from its very nature." 2 To the latter he offers advice: "Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written." The mysteries of the best books, Thoreau insists, are revealed only to those who, through their patience and persistence, prove themselves worthy of their teachings. "The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have" (p. 83). Thoreau's Walden, I mean to show, was both conceived and meant to be read as just such a heroic book, not only because of its author's "epic ambition" to create a national literature, 3 but also because a unique understanding of heroism is the subject of its most esoteric chapters.

A deliberate and reserved reading of chapters eleven and twelve of Walden reveals the irony of their titles. 4 The dominant theme of the chapter entitled "Higher Laws" is brutishness; that of "Brute Neighbors," [End Page 59] nobility. Where "Higher Laws" examines the savagery inherent in human nature, "Brute Neighbors" examines the nobility inherent in the natural world. Why this inversion? Surely the switch is meant, at least in part, to have us rethink that artificial distinction which Thoreau believes we have drawn between the savage and the noble. But redeeming our oft-denigrated savage nature is only part of his project. In the set piece formed by these two chapters, 5 Thoreau also presents a new understanding of heroic magnanimity, one designed to reconcile his conflicting attractions to natural savagery and to cultivated nobility. Thoreau's sincere conviction that civilization constitutes "a real advance in the condition of man" rendered both Homer's premodern Achilles and Rousseau's noble savage unfit models for the sort of human excellence he sought (p. 27). According to Thoreau, the well-ordered soul belongs neither to him who merely indulges in the primordial elements of his character nor him who merely renounces them, but rather to the man who harmonizes his primitive and polite sides once each has been allowed to flourish. And as we shall see, Thoreau offers his readers a glimpse of this new magnanimity in his homage to Walden's greatest-souled guest, the loon, the embodiment of that philosophic self-sufficiency to which he aspired.

Thoreau's sensitivity to both the spiritual and the savage sides of his nature is evident in the opening of "Higher Laws." "I found in myself, and still find," Thoreau here explains, "an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good" (p. 170). Thus Thoreau makes his clearest statement of a central teaching of Walden: that "the wild" is no less deserving of our love and respect than "the good." 6 And though he believes we are called to the amalgamation of these two sides of our nature, the emphasis of "Higher Laws" is decidedly on the former, our wild and primitive side. The genius...


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