In Literature, Philosophy on
July 17, 2017

Thoreauly Bohemian

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.” ~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

If you could crystallize your values and what you believe to be true down to a few simple phrases, what would they be? What is the philosophy that you live by? It’s hard, isn’t it? Finding quiet time to really think about what matters most in today’s hustle and bustle is a herculean task. But, (deep breath) I am going to try. So, here goes everything…

I believe in grace; but I don’t believe in human sacrifice. Basically, I believe there is goodness, and even greatness, in everyone and especially in nature.  I believe that it is my life’s mission to look for that goodness and greatness in everything around me. So, did Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau is most well known for his iconic book “Walden”. He is also known in the philosophy world as one of the more famous transcendentalists.

Transcendentalism is best understood when viewed in its historical context. It was after the revolutionary war and before the civil war. A new nation was being formed, and with it a new cultural identity. Thoreau and other intellectuals in the Massachusetts area wanted to create a body of literature and contribute to western philosophy in a uniquely American way.

Transcendentalists believe in freedom to act in accordance with personal intuition–with gut feelings. They were not staunchly religious. However, they were not purely secular either.  They valued the experiential, the passionate, and the more-than-just-rational perspective. Transcendentalists believed that God gave humankind the gift of intuition, the gift of insight, the gift of inspiration. Why waste such a gift?

The transcendentalists ideology draws upon the writings of Emmanuel Kant as well as Hindu and Buddhist scriptures. They felt that individuals do best when they are left to govern themselves. They believed in equality at a human level. To the transcendentalists, any hierarchical institution of society which fostered vast differences in the ability to be educated, to be self-directed, were institutions to be reformed. These transcendentalists were activists.

Thoreau was an abolitionist, and participated in the underground railroad. He wrote a now famous essay entitled “Civil Disobedience”. In it he argued that when a government is not governing its constituents in an honorable way, civilians are justified in rebelling against that government.

Thoreau and other transcendentalists emphasized the basic goodness of nature and human nature. to truly live and experience the ideology, Thoreau lived in a small cabin at Walden Pond for two years, where he wrote his most famous work, Walden.

Thoreau was certainly a bohemian. He was a deep and progressive thinker. He practiced an unconventional lifestyle living in the woods of Massachusetts on Walden Pond. He was nonconformist believing in abolition and refusing to pay taxes.

He will always be one of the leading and most influential bohemian philosophers and literary figures. I look forward to reading his book Walden with all of you in our book club this fall! Stay tuned for more details where that is concerned; and, in the bohemian words of Henry David Thoreau: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.”

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