Thoreau and Emerson – Perfecting Character
My Keys to Thoreau and Emerson – Perfecting Character
Transcendentalists believe that which is Divine permeates everything, including every human being. The soul of an individual human being is part of the overarching soul of this Divinity, and has the power to grasp the universal truths of which it is a part. The 19th century transcendentalist movement led by writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau encouraged human beings to access these higher truths and principles as part of perfecting their Divinity, and urged individuals to express these principles and inspire others.
Emerson wrote “words are also actions, and actions are a form of words.” (Emerson, “The Poet,” 1182) Emerson was describing different forms of human expression that are so related that they are intertwined and in some ways indistinguishable. Thoreau expanded this philosophy to assert that words and actions were necessarily used together to effect change when matters of individual conscience conflict with false societal or government values. Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government” urges citizens to use actions of passive resistance, such as refusal to pay taxes, to block compromise and force societal issues of grave impact to humanity to be actively addressed. Thoreau’s writing across his whole body of work describes ideal transcendental human virtues and modes of expression and offers a picture of a “whole man” who expresses Divinity completely. This paper displays evidence from Thoreau’s essays about the characteristics of a “perfect whole man,” a man who recognizes higher laws and speaks to higher principles, acts with earnestness and for effect, puts humanity ahead of commerce, exhibits a consistent character under all circumstances, and expresses himself in words and actions that are provocative and inspire others. Thoreau believed these virtuous individuals would revolutionize society, but also revolutionize themselves. This paper will enumerate the benefits to an individual from living according to the principles Thoreau and other transcendentalists set forth. Note that I have adopted the convention of using “man” whenever I mean a human of any gender, for convenience.
One quality of a virtuous man, according to Thoreau, is that they put issues of humanity at the forefront, ahead of issues of commerce, and that they act autonomously of government and established institutions. Thoreau despairs of many of his contemporaries living in a time where slavery and the Mexican War are moral imperatives:
The majority of the men of the North, and of the South, and East, and West, are not men of principle. If they vote, they do not send men to Congress on errands of humanity, ..it is the mismanagement of wood and iron and stone and gold which concerns them (Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” 341).
Thoreau continues his essay with a reminder that while the freedoms of some are denied, men should act autonomously and not look to government to be their conscience:
I would remind my countrymen, that they are to be men first, and Americans only at a late and convenient hour. No matter how valuable law may be to protect your property, even to keep soul and body together, if it do not keep you and humanity together (Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” 342)
Thoreau laments over the inability of the institution of government or majority rule to effectively decide issues of morality:
But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? – in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for the moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.” (Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government,” 1858)
Thoreau argues that only individuals can decide what is right, but that individuals are leaving it to government to solve the moral problems, a task which government is not suited to do. Thoreau’s “perfect man” acts autonomously of government, and does not wait for the government to address issues of morality and justice.
Thoreau believed that acting with earnestness and for effect was an essential part of being a whole man. Thoreau’s contemporaries in Massachusetts inadvertently lent support for the very issues they found personally reprehensible. Thoreau complains, “There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them…” (Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, 207) Thoreau struggled with the weakness of citizens when confronted with issues of conscience:
“What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot today? They hesitate and they regret, and sometimes they petition, but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret.” (Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government,” 1860 – 1861)
Thoreau believed that acting on matters of conscience is a matter of expressing yourself in wholeness:
“Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.” (Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government,” 1864)
Thoreau recognized how his neighbors felt when asked to act against government, “they dread the consequences of disobedience to it to their properties and families.” However, Thoreau believed that acting with deliberation and with bravery was the only valid expression of the divine soul, and always worth doing for its own sake:
The hugest and most effective deed may have no sensible result at all on earth, but may paint itself in the heavens with new stars and new constellations. (Thoreau, “The Service”, 18)
Thoreau believed action was often the form of expression that his contemporaries lacked, and the consequences of inaction or feeble action were a form of support. He pointed out, “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing feebly your desire that it should prevail.” (Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government,” 1861).
Inaction or feeble action was ineffective, and prolonged inhumane practices like slavery.
Thoreau’s perfect man had a consistent, reliable character. Thoreau admired Sir Walter Raleigh, a British writer, aristocrat and explorer who lived in the 16th and early 17th century, and a good example of consistent virtue. From his essay on Raleigh:
“Such a life is useful for us to contemplate as suggesting that a man is not to be measured by the virtue of his described actions or the wisdom of his expressed thoughts merely, but by that free character he is, and is felt to be, under all circumstances.“ (Thoreau, “Sir Walter Raleigh,” 87)
Thoreau believed, then, that to act in accordance with universal principles, as you understand them, is to be consistent. This consistent character is a reflection of divinity.
“it is not of so much importance to inquire of a man what actions he performed at one and what at another period, as what manner of man he was at all periods (Thoreau, “Sir Walter Raleigh,” 68)
Transcendentalists believed that to be consistent is a form of freedom, because you are consistent to your own principles and not to established dogma or institutions.
Another characteristic of Thoreau’s perfect man is one who expresses himself clearly and compels action from others. Thoreau complained of his society, “We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth which it may utter, or any heroism it may inspire.” (Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government, “ 1871). But Thoreau admired his contemporary, writer Thomas Carlyle: When writing about Thomas Carlyle and his work, Thoreau indicates that the value of Carlyle’s writing is that it is provocative:
“These volumes contain not the highest, but a very practicable wisdom, which startles and provokes, rather than informs us. Carlyle does not oblige us to think; we have thought enough for him already, but he compels us to act.” (Thoreau, “Thomas Carlyle And His Works”, 191)
Thoreau expresses here another relationship between the written or spoken word and action, and that is how writing can inspire action. “It is not so important that many should be as good as you, as that there be some absolute goodness somewhere, for that will leaven the whole lump.” (Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government, 1860). Expression of universal principles inspires others to act in accordance, a leavening or raising of the whole society.
Finally, an essential characteristic of Thoreau’s perfect man is that he recognizes higher laws and principles: Thoreau argues: “What is wanted is men, not of policy, but of probity – who recognize a higher law than the Constitution, or decision of the majority.” (Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” 343). One of these men that Thoreau respected was Nathaniel P. Rogers, editor of the abolitionist newspaper, The Herald of Freedom. Of his writing, Thoreau said, “it has a life above grammar, and a meaning which need not be parsed to be understood.” (Thoreau, “Herald of Freedom,” 156). Thoreau shows that he values writing that expresses universal truths and speaks to higher principles. And in the 1850s Thoreau advocated for the Abolitionist John Brown, who practiced armed insurrection to attempt to abolish slavery and was eventually hanged for treason against the state of Virginia. Thoreau wrote three essays about Brown in which he illuminated his character, mode of expression, and divinity.
A man of rare common sense and directness of speech, as of action; a transcendentalist above all, a man of ideas and principles – that was what distinguished him. Not yielding to a whim or transient impulse, but carrying out the purpose of a life. (Thoreau, “A Plea for Captain John Brown” 399).
Thoreau admired Brown’s speech and actions that supported his principles and considered him a martyr. From an essay Thoreau wrote after Brown was hanged:
So universal and widely related is a transcendent moral greatness – so nearly identical with greatness every where and in every age, as a pyramid contracts the nearer you approach its apex – that, when I look over my commonplace book of poetry, I find that the best of it is oftenest applicable, in part of wholly, to the case of Captain Brown. (Thoreau, “Martyrdom of John Brown,” 418)
Thoreau believed that Brown’s morality and his uncompromising support for universal truths signified his greatness.
We have discussed some qualities of the perfect man, according to Thoreau, and we know that transcendentalists believe in the divinity and supremacy of the individual. Thoreau enumerated a number of personal benefits for individuals that cultivate these qualities, in addition to the impacts to society that they can make. And Thoreau believed there were costs for individuals that did not act according to their consciences:
Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man’s real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now. (Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government,” 1865)
When you don’t obey the higher, universal laws that you recognize, you are wounding your integrity, your soul, and there is no way to repair it, you are effectively disobeying your true divine nature. Thoreau indicates that loss of spiritual wholeness is a form of death:
If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself….. But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it. (Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government, 1860).
Thoreau argues that there is no spiritual wholeness when you have been unjust and not followed divine principles. “If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.” (Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government,” 1867). Thoreau again suggests that there is a death associated with those who do not obey their divine conscience.
Finally, Thoreau suggests that living and expression according to divine principles puts you in touch with your divinity, changing you for the better.
“Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was. It not only divides states and churches, it divides families; ay, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine.” (Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government,” 1862)
Identifying your divine nature inspires further acts and expressions of this nature, and places you on a trajectory for perfection and wholeness.
Thoreau’s essays, including “Resistance to Civil Government” urge us to perfect ourselves and to act with bravery and conscience. The essay’s impact has been felt all over the world, including influencing Gandhi to lead the resistance to British rule in India. Thoreau urged individuals to strive for understanding and expression of universal truths. “What stuff is the man made of who is not coexistent in our thought with the purest and subtlest truth?” (Thoreau, “Life Without Principle,” 358). Thoreau’s mentor and friend, Emerson, concluded his essay “Self Reliance” with “nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.” (Emerson, “Self Reliance,” 1180). Transcendentalism, as outlined by Emerson and expanded on by Thoreau, celebrates the triumph of the individual and the knowledge that an individual soul is a microcosm of the Divine soul, and possesses intuitive insight into universal principles. By adopting universal principals as your own and perfecting them while expressing them, peace will be a natural and just reward.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Poet,” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B”: 2007 Pages 1180 – 1195.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Self Reliance,” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B”: 2007 Pages 1163 – 1180.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Resistance to Civil Government,” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B”: 2007 Pages 1857 – 1872.
Thoreau, Henry David, “Sir Walter Raleigh”, Collected Essays and Poems, The Library of America, 2001, Pages. 57 – 88.
Thoreau, Henry David, “Thomas Carlyle and His Works”, Collected Essays and Poems, The Library of America, 2001, Pages. 165 – 202.
Thoreau, Henry David, “Herald of Freedom”, Collected Essays and Poems, The Library of America, 2001, Pages. 155 – 161.
Thoreau, Henry David, “A Plea for Captain John Brown”, Collected Essays and Poems, The Library of America, 2001, Pages. 396 – 417.
Thoreau, Henry David, “Martyrdom of John Brown”, Collected Essays and Poems, The Library of America, 2001, Pages. 418 – 421.
Thoreau, Henry David, “Slavery in Massachusetts”, Collected Essays and Poems, The Library of America, 2001, Pages. 333 – 347.