Even his best friends got tired of him sometimes. “His admirers called him ‘that terrible Thoreau,’ as if he spoke when silent, and was still present when he had departed,” Ralph Waldo Emerson remembered, on the occasion of his funeral. Who could blame them? Thoreau, at his worst, played the killjoy. He was unaccommodating and self-righteous. He grated on the nerves. Thoreau’s “austerity,” Emerson went on, “made this willing hermit more solitary even than he wished.” In other words, he wore out his welcome. Rebuke was a lonely profession.
If it was hard to love him, though, it was also hard to let him go. There is some condescension in Emerson’s eulogy, but there is some longing in it, too. There is a wish to hear Thoreau’s voice in the silence, to feel his presence after he is gone.
It is good—enlivening, sustaining—to think about Thoreau alongside others who are unwilling to give him up. Each of us has returned to his work with desires other than the strictly historical. Each of us has wished to hear him speak to our own questions, in our time.
Others have done so, too. The ambiguities in Thoreau’s writing, Rebecca Ruth Gould reminds us, have made it available to a “range of appropriations, from the pacifism of Tolstoy and Gandhi to the militancy of Mehanna” (166). The libertarian recluse of “Civil Disobedience” came around to defending violent rebellion in “A Plea for John Brown.” Conscientious objectors and militants alike contend for his legacy.
Returning to Walden, Alda Balthrop-Lewis considers Thoreau’s “tenderer asceticism” (a beautiful, paradoxical phrase), as she looks to resolve the tension between two imperatives, contemplation and action. In her account, withdrawing from a vicious, destructive economy is making a strike against it. Thoreau in the woods stages a moral boycott, party of one.
Peter Coviello, thinking of carnality, discovers in Thoreau’s ambivalences a critical suspicion about how capital and biopower take hold of us just there—under the skin, in the desires that seem most natural to us, as if they did not belong to history at all. I could spend a whole night with Coviello and a bottle of whiskey, discussing this “agile-minded uneasiness about what saying yes to the wild might entail” (511).
On this occasion, though, I want to talk about a topic that might seem like the opposite of saying yes to the wild, though I hope to show that the two are more intimate, for Thoreau at least, than they appear. I want to talk about self-discipline.
Civil disobedience or terror (Gould)? The contemplative life or the active one (Balthrop-Lewis)? Carnal yearning or renunciation (Coviello)? I would add: self-surrender or a redoubling of the will? Thinking with Thoreau, we find ways out of these dilemmas.
But if Thoreau’s corpus remains a rich resource for intellectual life, open to many uses, this is not simply because his work is ambiguous. Thoreau cannot be conscripted to just any cause. In fact, his vision is neatly circumscribed, even when it lends itself to positions that look irreconcilable from within the horizon it draws for itself.
I think that Thoreau’s generative ambivalence, the reason we keep returning to him, comes from a specific move he makes, over and over again. Thoreau does something very particular for us. He recasts problems of political economy as ethical questions about the conduct of life.
When we call Thoreau’s name, we are almost always invoking this move, this recasting, as the premise for whatever else we are about to say. Thus his “insistence on the sovereignty of conscience over the materiality of the state” (Gould). Thus his translation of industrial capitalism into the sin of “avarice,” as if a vow of self-impoverishment could strike at its foundation (Balthrop-Lewis). Thus, above all, his “ever-watchful self-attentiveness” (Coviello).
For my part, I have been following Thoreau’s reflections on the problem of attention. Against those who misrecognize Thoreau as a passive reader of the world, I have tried to show how such a figure can come into being only through the retrospective, deliberate work of writing. Against those who misunderstand him as a practitioner of self-annihilation, I have tried to show how attending, for Thoreau, is always a matter of willfulness, indeed of command, most of all when he takes himself as an object of address.
Today, dramatic changes in our technical and economic conditions solicit financial metaphors like “attention deficit” and the “attention economy,” along with lucrative industries in pharmaceuticals and therapies for the distracted. In his time, too, Thoreau did what he could to save himself, but he drew his images from religion, not from business.
“I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality,” Thoreau avowed in “Life without Principle.” The essay, a manifesto, begins with an anecdote about being bored at one of Emerson’s lyceum talks. It goes on to consider capitalist labor relations, national politics, and social customs, all the modern entanglements from which Thoreau longed to extricate himself. And then it offers its therapeutic program:
“If we have thus desecrated ourselves—and who has not?—the remedy will be by wariness and devotion to reconsecrate ourselves, and make once more a fane of the mind. We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention.”
By attending, we open ourselves to the world. By the objects we choose, we allow the world to corrupt us, or we purify ourselves.
Thoreau was not the kind of monk who would turn away from material things or mortify his body. He wished to situate himself in nature and to intensify his sensory experience—to feel more grounded, more alive. He craved delight. The new life he sought was less an influx of grace than a resurrection, fully enfleshed. But his way to it was a discipline of attention.
Repairing the damage that modernity had done to him was the task of Thoreau’s career. It committed him to new obligations, but he claimed the prerogative to define precisely what those obligations would be. It was, in its way, a kind of rebellion. It looked, for the most part, like walking in the woods and writing in a journal. Confronting disciplinary regimes, Thoreau crafted a counter-discipline for himself.
Thus Thoreau revised religious scripts into a new kind of devotional literature, adapting spiritual exercises to a dissenting self-culture. “He was a born protestant,” Emerson recalled, and he remained one even through his experiments with other traditions and faiths.
Thinking about Thoreau and political theology, then, brings me back to the strongest, clearest critique of his work that I know, a treatment laid out in just three pages by Hannah Arendt in “Reflections on Civil Disobedience” (1970). Arendt finds in Thoreau an unresolvable conflict “between morality and politics.” When he declines to pay his taxes—and, by implication, refuses to involve himself in slavery and imperial war— Thoreau grounds his dissent in “conscience.” But conscience, according to Arendt, is ultimately “unpolitical.”
What Arendt means is that conscience is private, disconnected from the public, collective, and properly political project of making a world for people to live in together. Although conscience may recoil from injustice, “it is not primarily interested in the world where the wrong is committed” (60). Instead, it “trembles for the individual self and its integrity” (61). Political theology: another paradox? Conscience does not mobilize groups toward revolution or reform. It excuses itself, traveling alone.
In the long run, Thoreau has found no sanctuary even in morality. Critics have pursued him there, as well. It is pointed out, for instance, that Thoreau depended on the unacknowledged,unremunerated labor of the women in his life, who sometimes cooked for him and washed his clothes while he lived at Walden. Thoreau “aspired to solitude and self-sufficiency but kept going home for cookies and company”; even worse, he “preached at others to live as he did not.” He made claims to self-reliance while burying the signs of his dependence. Such, according to the New Yorker critic Kathryn Schulz, are the tokens of his “hypocrisy.”
Here, in the recent history of Thoreau’s reception, a curious reversal has played out. For Arendt, Thoreau demonstrated a radical moral courage, but he could be true to his conscience only by surrendering the field of political action. For Schulz, by contrast, Thoreau’s failing is moral, not political. What he lacks for Schulz is precisely the virtue Arendt ascribes to him: integrity. This is a strange destiny for a writer, isn’t it, to be condemned in the very terms he laid out for himself? When the critic calls Thoreau out for hypocrisy, he loses a bid for ethical authority, but he wins in making integrity—practicing what you preach—the standard by which he and everyone else will be judged. Who’s the killjoy now?
To some, then, Thoreau’s project looks like the solipsism of a man who has the privilege of exempting himself from the community’s fate. To me, it looks more like a search for consolation. Less indifferent to the world than hopeless about changing it, Thoreau repairs to another, smaller territory where his decisions and actions can have a reordering effect. He practices the art of self-government.
If we follow his thought along these lines, our relation to ourselves becomes a matter of vital importance. Thoreau’s self-discipline holds out the promise that we might unbecome what history has made us.
But the promise, crucially, is never fulfilled. If it were, there would be no more work, no more writing. There would be, in a sense, no more Thoreau, since what really animates him, from start to finish, is imperfection—the intractable failure, the incompleteness of his own project of self-purification.
This is his secret, and this may be my favorite thing about reading Thoreau in the company of others who don’t want to let him go. We keep finding ways to love him, not for the absoluteness of his piety but for its lapses, not for the perfection of his self-discipline but for its falterings. What we gain is not non-complicity but something sweeter, an accomplice.