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Nature Vs Society Essays On Friendship

Phillip Lopate ’64 editor, essayist, novelist, poet and film critic — is professor of professional practice at the School of the Arts. His most recent works include a book of novellas, Two Marriages (Other Press, 2008), and Notes on Sontag (Princeton University Press, 2009). The following essay (which first appeared in Texas Monthly) comes from his acclaimed collection, Against Joie De Vivre: Personal Essays, recently reissued by Bison Books.

Herbert Gold ’46, in his original New York Times review of Against Joie de Vivre, wrote: “Mr. Lopate’s eloquence and wit are instructive about the glamorous foreign lands of chagrin … He has something refreshing for that generic essay subject, friendship, a school for character in which friends exchange their limited intimacies and offer forgiveness for the catastrophe of personality.”

Rose Kernochan ’82 Barnard

Is there anything left to say about friendship after so many great essayists have picked over the bones of the subject? Probably not. Aristotle and Cicero, Seneca and Montaigne, Bacon and Samuel Johnson, Hazlitt, Emerson, and Lamb have all taken their cracks at it; since the ancients, friendship has been a sort of examination subject for the personal essayist. It is partly the very existence of such wonderful prior models that lures the newcomer to follow in the others’ footsteps, and partly a self-referential aspect of the genre, since the personal essay is itself an attempt to establish a friendship on the page between writer and reader.

Friendship has been called “love without wings,” implying a want of lyrical afflatus. On the other hand, the Stoic definition of love (“Love is the attempt to form a friendship inspired by beauty”) seems to suggest that friendship came first. Certainly a case can be made that the buildup of affection and the yearning for more intimacy, without the release of sexual activity, keeps friends in a state of sweet-sorrowful itchiness that has as much romantic quality as a love affair. We know that a falling-out between two old friends can leave a deeper and more perplexing hurt than the ending of a love affair, perhaps because we are more pessimistic about the latter’s endurance from the start.

Our first attempted friendships are within the family. It is here we practice the techniques of listening sympathetically and proving that we can be trusted, and learn the sort of kindness we can expect in return. I have a sister, one year younger than I, who often took care of me when I was growing up. Once, when I was about fifteen, unable to sleep and shivering uncontrollably with the start of a fever, I decided in the middle of the night to go into her room and wake her. She held me, performing the basic service of a friend — presence — and the chills went away.

There is something tainted about these family friendships, however. This same sister, in her insecure adolescent phase, told me: “You love me because I’m related to you, but if you were to meet me for the first time at a party, you’d think I was a jerk and not worth being your friend.” She had me in a bind: I had no way of testing her hypothesis. I should have argued that even if our bond was not freely chosen, our decision to work on it had been. Still, we are quick to dismiss the partiality of our family members when they tell us we are talented, cute, or lovable; we must go out into the world and seduce others.

It is just a few short years from the promiscuity of the sandbox to the tormented, possessive feelings of a fifth grader who has just learned that his best and only friend is playing at another classmate’s house after school. There may be worse betrayals in store, but probably none is more influential than the sudden fickleness of an elementary school friend who has dropped us for someone more popular after all our careful, patient wooing. Often we lose no time inflicting the same betrayal on someone else, just to ensure that we have got the victimization dynamic right.

What makes friendships in childhood and adolescence so poignant is that we need the chosen comrade to be everything in order to rescue us from the gothic inwardness of family life. Even if we are lucky enough to have several companions, there must be a Best Friend, knightly dubbed as though victor of an Arthurian tournament.

I clung to the romance of the Best Friend all through high school, college, and beyond, until my university circle began to disperse. At that point, in my mid-twenties, I also “acted out” the dark competitive side of friendship that can exist between two young men fighting for a place in life and love, by doing the one unforgivable thing: sleeping with my best friend’s girl. I was baffled at first that there was no way to repair the damage. I lost this friendship forever, and came away from that debacle much more aware of the amount of injury that friendship can and cannot sustain. Perhaps I needed to prove to myself that friendship was not an all-permissive, resilient bond, like a mother’s love, but something quite fragile. Precisely because Best Friendship promotes such a merging of identities, such seeming boundary-lessness, the first major transgression of trust can cause the injured party to feel he is fighting for his violated soul against his darkest enemy. There is not much room to maneuver in a best friendship between unlimited intimacy and unlimited mistrust.

Still, it was not until the age of thirty that I reluctantly abandoned the Best Friend expectation and took up a more pluralistic model. At present, I cherish a dozen friends for their unique personalities, without asking that anyone be my soul-twin. Whether this alteration constitutes a movement toward maturity or toward cowardly pragmatism is not for me to say. It may be that, in refusing to depend so much on any one friend, I am opting for self-protection over intimacy. Or it may be that, as we advance into middle age, the life problem becomes less that of establishing a tight dyadic bond and more one of making our way in a broader world, “society.” Indeed, since Americans have so indistinct a notion of society, we often try to put friendship networks in its place. If a certain intensity is lost in the pluralistic model of friendship, there is also the gain of being able to experience all of one’s potential, half-buried selves, through witnessing the spectacle of the multiple fates of our friends. Since we cannot be polygamists in our conjugal life, at least we can do so with friendship. As it happens, the harem of friends, so tantalizing a notion, often translates into feeling pulled in a dozen different directions, with the guilty sense of having disappointed everyone a little. It is also a risky, contrived enterprise to try to make one’s friends behave in a friendly manner toward each other: if the effort fails one feels obliged to mediate; if it succeeds too well, one is jealous.

Whether friendship is intrinsically singular and exclusive, or plural and democratic, is a question that has vexed many commentators. Aristotle distinguished three types of friendship in The Nicomachean Ethics: “friendship based on utility,” such as businessmen cultivating each other for benefit; “friendship based on pleasure,” like young people interested in partying; and “perfect friendship.” The first two categories Aristotle calls “qualified and superficial friendships,” because they are founded on circumstances that could easily change; the last, which is based on admiration for another’s good character, is more permanent, but also rarer, because good men “are few.” Cicero, who wrote perhaps the best treatise on friendship, also insisted that what brings true friends together is “a mutual belief in each other’s goodness.” This insistence on virtue as a precondition for true friendship may strike us as impossibly demanding: who, after all, feels himself good nowadays? And yet, if I am honest, I must admit that the friendships of mine which have lasted longest have been with those whose integrity, or humanity, or strength to bear their troubles I continue to admire. Conversely, when I lost respect for someone, however winning he otherwise remained, the friendship petered away almost immediately. “Remove respect from friendship,” said Cicero, “and you have taken away the most splendid ornament it possesses.”

Montaigne distinguished between friendship, which he saw as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the calculating worldly alliances around him, which he thought unworthy of the name. In paying tribute to his late friend Etienne de la Boetie, Montaigne wrote: “Having so little time to last, and having begun so late, for we were both grown men, and he a few years older than I, it could not lose time and conform to the pattern of mild and regular friendships, which need so many precautions in the form of long preliminary association. Our friendship has no other model than itself, and can be compared only with itself. It is not one special consideration, nor two, nor three, nor four, nor a thousand: it is I know not what quintessence of all this mixture, which, having seized my whole will, led it to plunge and lose itself in his; which, having seized his whole will, led it to plunge and lose itself in mine, with equal hunger, equal rivalry … So many coincidences are needed to build up such a friendship that it is a lot if fortune can do it once in three centuries.” This seems a bit high hat: since the sixteenth century, our expectations of friendship may have grown more plebeian. Even Emerson, in his grand romantic essay on the subject, allowed as how he was not up to the Castor-and-Pollux standard “I am not quite so strict in my terms, perhaps because I have never known so high a fellowship as others.” Emerson contents himself with a circle of intelligent men and women, but warns us not to throw them together: “You shall have very useful and cheering discourse at several times with two several men, but let all three of you come together, and you shall not have one new and hearty word. Two may talk and one may hear, but three cannot take part in a conversation of the most sincere and searching sort.”


Friendship is a long conversation. I suppose I could imagine a nonverbal friendship revolving around shared physical work or sport, but for me, good talk is the point of the thing. Indeed, the ability to generate conversation by the hour is the most promising indication, during its uncertain early stages, that a possible friendship will take hold. In the first few conversations there may be an exaggeration of agreement, as both parties angle for adhesive surfaces. But later on, trust builds through the courage to assert disagreement, through the tactful acceptance that differences of opinion will have to remain.

Some view like-mindedness as both the precondition and product of friendship. Myself, I distrust it. I have one friend who keeps assuming that we see the world eye-to-eye. She is intent on enrolling us in a flattering aristocracy of taste, on the short “we” list against the ignorant “they”; sometimes I do not have the strength to fight her need for consensus with my own stubborn disbelief in the existence of any such inner circle of privileged, cultivated sensibility. Perhaps I have too much invested in a view of myself as idiosyncratic to be eager to join any coterie, even a coterie of two. What attracts me to friends’ conversation is the give-and-take, not necessarily that we come out at the same point.

“Our tastes and aims and views were identical — and that is where the essence of a friendship must always lie,” wrote Cicero. To some extent, perhaps, but then the convergence must be natural, not, as Emerson put it, “a mush of concession. Better be a nettle in the side of your friend than his echo.” And Francis Bacon observed that “the best preservative to keep the mind in health is the faithful admonition of a friend.”

Friendship is a school for character, allowing us the chance to study in great detail and over time temperaments very different from our own. These charming quirks, these contradictions, these nobilities, these blind spots of our friends we track not out of disinterested curiosity: we must have this information before knowing how far we may relax our guard, how much we may rely on them in crises. The learning curve of friendship involves, to no small extent, filling out this picture of the other’s limitations and making peace with the results. (With one’s own limitations there may never be peace.) Each time I hit up against a friend’s inflexibility I am relieved as well as disappointed: I can begin to predict, and arm myself in advance against repeated bruises. I have one friend who is always late, so I bring a book along when I am to meet her. If I give her a manuscript to read and she promises to look at it over the weekend, I start preparing myself for a month-long wait.

Not that one ever gives up trying to educate the friend to one’s needs. I approach such matters experimentally: sometimes I will pride myself in tactfully circumventing the friend’s predicted limitation, even if it means relinquishing all hope of getting the response I want; at other times I will confront a problem with intentional tactlessness, just to see if any change is still possible.

I have a dear old friend, Richard, who shies away from personal confidences. Years go by without my learning anything about his love life, and he does not encourage the baring of my soul either, much as I like that sort of thing. But we share so many other interests and values that that limitation seems easily borne, most of the time. Once, however, I found myself in a state of emotional despair; I told him I had exhausted my hopes of finding love or success, that I felt suicidal, and he changed the topic, patently embarrassed. I was annoyed both at his emotional rigidity and at my own stupidity — after all, I’d enough friends who ate up this kind of confessional talk, why foist on Richard what I might have predicted he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, handle? For a while I sulked, annoyed at him for having failed me, but I also began to see my despair through his eyes as melodramatic, childish petulance, and I began to let it go. As it happened, he found other ways during our visit to be so considerate that I ended up feeling better, even without our having had a heart-to-heart talk. I suppose the moral is that a friend can serve as a corrective to our insular miseries simply by offering up his essential otherness.

Though it is often said that with a true friend there is no need to hold anything back (“A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud,” wrote Emerson), I have never found this to be entirely the case. Certain words may be too cruel if spoken at the wrong moment — or may fall on deaf ears, for any number of reasons. I also find with each friend, as they must with me, that some initial resistance, restlessness, psychic weather must be overcome before that tender ideal attentiveness may be called forth.

I have a good friend, Charlie, who is often very distracted whenever we first get together. If we are sitting in a cafe he will look around constantly for the waiter, or be distracted by a pretty woman or the restaurant’s cat. It would be foolish for me to broach an important subject at such moments, so I resign myself to waiting the half hour or however long it takes until his jumpiness subsides. Or else I draw this pattern grumpily to his attention. Once he has settled down, however, I can tell Charlie virtually anything, and he me. But the candor cannot be rushed. It must be built up to with the verbal equivalent of limbering exercises.

The Friendship Scene — a flow of shared confidences, recognitions, humor, advice, speculation, even wisdom — is one of the key elements of modern friendships. Compared to the rest of life, this ability to lavish one’s best energies on an activity utterly divorced from the profit motive and free from the routines of domination and inequality that affect most relations (including, perhaps, the selfsame friendship at other times) seems idyllic. The Friendship Scene is by its nature not an everyday occurrence. It represents the pinnacle, the fruit of the friendship, potentially ever-present but not always arrived at. Both friends’ dim yet self-conscious awareness that they are wandering conversationally toward a goal that they have previously accomplished but which may elude them this time around creates a tension, an obligation to communicate as sincerely as possible, like actors in an improvisation exercise struggling to shape their baggy material into some climactic form. This very pressure to achieve “quality” communication may induce a sort of inauthentic epiphany, not unlike what happens sometimes in the last ten minutes of a psychotherapy session. But a truly achieved Friendship Scene can be among the best experiences life has to offer.

I remember one such afternoon when Michael, a close writer-friend, and I met at a cafeteria on a balmy Saturday in early spring and talked for three and a half hours. There were no outside time pressures that particular afternoon, a rare occurrence for either of us. At first we caught up with our latest business, the sort of items that might have gone into a biweekly bulletin sent to any number of acquaintances. Then gradually we settled into an area of perplexing unresolved impressions. I would tell Michael about A’s chance, seemingly hostile remark toward me at a gathering, and he would report that the normally ebullient B looked secretly depressed. These were the memory equivalents of food grains stuck in our teeth, which we were now trying to free with our tongues: anecdotal fragments I was not even sure had any point, until I started fashioning them aloud for Michael’s interest. Together we diagnosed our mutual acquaintances, each other’s character, and, from there, the way of the world. In the course of our free associations we eventually descended into what was really bothering us. I learned he was preoccupied with the fate of an old college friend who was dying of AIDS; he, that my father was in poor health and needed two operations. We had touched bottom — mortality — and it was reassuring to settle there awhile. Gradually we rose again, drawn back to the questions of ego and career, craft and romance. It was, as I’ve said, a pretty day, and we ended up walking through a new mall in Houston, gawking at the window displays of that bland emporium with a reawakened curiosity about the consumer treats of America, our attentions turned happily outward now that we had dwelt long enough in the shared privacies of our psyches,

Contemporary urban life, with its tight schedules and crowded appointment books, has helped to shape modern friendship into something requiring a good deal of intentionality and pursuit. You phone a friend and make a date a week or more in advance; then you set aside an evening, like a tryst, during which to squeeze in all your news and advice, confession and opinion. Such intimate compression may add a romantic note to modern friendships, but it also places a strain on the meeting to yield a high quality of meaning and satisfaction, closer to art than life, thereby increasing the chance for disappointment. If I see certain busy or out-of-town friends only once every six months, we must not only catch up on our lives but convince ourselves within the allotted two hours together that we still share a special affinity, an inner track to each other’s psyches, or the next meeting may be put off for years. Surely there must be another, saner rhythm to friendship in rural areas — or maybe not? I think about “the good old days” when friends would go on walking tours through England together, when Edith Wharton would bundle poor Henry James into her motorcar and they’d drive to the South of France for a month. I’m not sure my friendships could sustain the strain of travel for weeks at a time, and the truth of the matter is that I’ve gotten used to this urban arrangement of serial friendship “dates,” where the pleasure of the rendezvous is enhanced by the knowledge that it will only last, at most, six hours. If the two of us don’t happen to mesh that day (always a possibility) — well, it’s only a few hours; and if it should go beautifully, one needs an escape hatch from exaltation as well as disenchantment. I am capable of only so much intense, exciting communication before I start to fade; I come to these encounters equipped with a six-hour oxygen tank. Is this an evolutionary pattern of modern friendship, or only a personal limitation? .

Perhaps because I conceive of the modern Friendship Scene as a somewhat theatrical enterprise, a one-act play, I tend to be very affected by the “set,” so to speak. A restaurant, a museum, a walk in the park through the zoo, even accompanying a friend on shopping errands — I prefer public turf where the stimulation of the city can play a backdrop to our dialogue, feeding it with details when inspiration flags. True, some of the most cherished friendship scenes have occurred around a friend’s kitchen table. The problem with restricting the date to one another’s houses is that the entertaining friend may be unable to stop playing the host, or may sink too passively into his or her surroundings. Subtle struggles may also develop over which domicile should serve as the venue.

I have a number of chez moi friends, friends who always invite me to come to their homes while evading offers to visit mine. What they view as hospitality I see as a need to control the mise-en-scène of friendship. I am expected to fit in where they are most comfortable, while they play lord of the manor, distracted by the props of decor, the pool, the unexpected phone call, the swirl of children, animals, and neighbors. Indeed, chez moi friends often tend to keep a sort of open house, so that in going over to see them — for a tête-à-tête, I had assumed — I will suddenly find their other friends and neighbors, whom they have also invited, dropping in all afternoon. There are only so many Sundays I care to spend hanging out with a friend’s entourage before becoming impatient for a private audience.

Married friends who own their own homes are much more apt to try to draw me into their domestic fold, whereas single people are often more sensitive about establishing a discreet space for the friendship to occur. Perhaps the married assume that a bachelor like myself is desperate for home cooking and a little family life. I have noticed that it is not an easy matter to pry a married friend away from mate and milieu. For married people, especially those with children, the home often becomes the wellspring of all their nurturing feelings, and the single friend is invited to partake in the general flow. Maybe there is also a certain tendency on their parts to kill two birds with one stone: they don’t see enough of their spouse and kids, and figure they can visit with you all at the same time. And maybe they need one-on-one friendship less, hampered as they are by responsibilities that no amount of camaraderie or discussion can change. Often friendship in these circumstances is not even a pairing, but a mixing together of two sets of parents and children willy-nilly. What would the ancients say about this? In Rome, according to Bacon, “the whole senate dedicated an altar to Friendship, as to a goddess … ” From my standpoint, friendship is a jealous goddess. Whenever a friend of mine marries, I have to fight to overcome the feeling that I am being “replaced” by the spouse. I don’t mind sharing a friend with his family milieu — in fact I like it, up to a point — but eventually I must get the friend alone, or else, as a bachelor at a distinct power disadvantage, I risk becoming a mere spectator of familial rituals instead of a key player in the drama of friendship.

A person living alone usually has more control over his or her schedule, hence more energy to give to friendship. If anything, the danger is of investing too much emotional energy in one’s friends. When a single person is going through a romantic dry spell he or she often tries to extract the missing passion from a circle of friends. This works only up to a point: the frayed nerves of protracted celibacy can lead to hypersensitive imaginings of slights and rejections, during which times one’s platonic friends seem to come particularly into the line of fire.

Today, with the partial decline of the nuclear family and the search for alternatives to it, we also see attempts to substitute the friendship web for intergenerational family life. Since psychoanalysis has alerted us to regard the family as a minefield of unrequited love, manipulation, and ambivalence, it is only natural that people may look to friendship as a more supportive ground for relation. But in our longing for an unequivocally positive bond, we should beware of sentimentalizing friendship, as saccharine “buddy” movies or certain feminist novels do, of neutering its problematic, destructive aspects. Besides, friendship can never substitute for the true meaning of family: if nothing else, it will never be able to duplicate the family’s wild capacity for concentrating neurosis.

In short, friends can’t be your family, they can’t be your lovers, they can’t be your psychiatrists. But they can be your friends, which is plenty. For, as Cicero tells us, “friendship is the noblest and most delightful of all the gifts the gods have given to mankind.” And Bacon adds: “it is a mere and miserable solitude to want true friends, without which the world is but a wilderness … ”

When I think about the qualities that characterize the best friendships I’ve known, I can identify five: rapport, affection, need, habit, and forgiveness. Rapport and affection can only take you so far; they may leave you at the formal, outer gate of goodwill, which is still not friendship. A persistent need for the other’s company, for their interest, approval, opinion, will get you inside the gates, especially when it is reciprocated. In the end, however, there are no substitutes for habit and forgiveness. A friendship may travel for years on cozy habit. But it is a melancholy fact that unless you are a saint you are bound to offend every friend deeply at least once in the course of time. The friends I have kept the longest are those who forgave me for wronging them, unintentionally, intentionally, or by the plain catastrophe of my personality, time and again. There can be no friendship without forgiveness.

Originally published in the February 1988 issue of Texas Monthly. Reprinted with permission of Texas Monthly and the author. © 1988
Phillip Lopate.

1. Life and Writings

Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1817 and died there in 1862, at the age of forty-four. Like that of his near-contemporary Søren Kierkegaard, Thoreau’s intellectual career unfolded in a close and polemical relation to the town in which he spent almost his entire life. After graduating from Harvard in 1837, he struck up a friendship with fellow Concord resident Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose essay “Nature” he had first encountered earlier that year. Although the two American thinkers had a turbulent relationship due to serious philosophical and personal differences, they had a profound and lasting effect upon one another. It was in the fall of 1837 that Thoreau, aged twenty, made his first entries in the multivolume journal he would keep for the rest of his life. Most of his published writings were developed from notes that first appeared on these pages, and Thoreau subsequently revised many entries, so his journal can be considered a finished work in itself. During his lifetime he published only two books, along with numerous shorter essays that were first delivered as lectures. He lived a simple and relatively quiet life, making his living briefly as a teacher and pencil maker but mostly as a land surveyor. Thoreau had intimate bonds with his family and friends, and remained unmarried although he was deeply in love at least twice. His first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, was still a work in progress in 1845, when he went to live in the woods by Walden Pond for two years and two months. This “experiment” in living on the outskirts of town was an intensive time of examination for Thoreau, as he drew close to nature and contemplated the final ends of his own life, which was otherwise at risk of ending in quiet desperation. Thoreau viewed his existential quest as a venture in philosophy, in the ancient Greek sense of the word, because it was motivated by an urgent need to find a reflective understanding of reality that could inform a life of wisdom. This is because, according to the view of philosophy as a way of life, that very way of life “will necessarily be deliberative and reflective”; accordingly, for Thoreau, “thinking about his life in the woods is central to his life in the woods” (Bates 2012, 29).

His experience bore fruit in the 1854 publication of his literary masterpiece Walden, a work that almost defies categorization: it is a work of narrative prose which often soars to poetic heights, combining philosophical speculation with close observation of a concrete place. It is a rousing summons to the examined life and to the realization of one’s potential, while at the same time it develops what might be described as a religious vision of the human being and the universe. Walden has been admired by a larger world audience than any other book written by an American author, and—whether or not it ought to be called a work of philosophy—it contains a substantial amount of philosophical content, which deserves to be better appreciated than it has been. Stanley Cavell has argued that Thoreau is an embarrassment to “what we have learned to call philosophy,” since his work embodies “a mode of conceptual accuracy” that is “based on an idea of rigor” somewhat foreign to the academic establishment (Cavell 1988, 14). Yet, as Cavell also notes, philosophical authors have more than one way to go about their business, and Thoreau—like Descartes in the Meditations—begins his argument by accounting for how he has come to believe that certain questions need to be addressed. In other words, his method is predicated on the belief that it is philosophically worthwhile to clarify the basis of your own perplexity and unrest (see Reid 2012, 46). And this is only one way of explaining how a significant part of the challenge in coming to terms with Thoreau is that his philosophy, like Nietzsche’s, has a literary and poetic quality. The reader is charged with finding the coherence of Thoreau’s whole philosophical outlook. Accordingly, this entry attempts to sort out and delineate the main themes of Thoreau’s project, in the hope of serving as an aid and stimulus to further study. It draws upon Thoreau’s entire corpus, including the works he left in manuscript that were published after his death.

2. Nature and Human Existence

In his essay “Nature,” Emerson asserts that there can be found in the natural world “a sanctity which shames our religions.” Thoreau would agree completely with this statement. But in the same essay Emerson also inclines toward Platonism, stating that nature is “emblematic” of higher truths, and suggesting that the material world has value by virtue of being a subsidiary product of mental reality: each natural object is therefore “a symbol of some spiritual fact.” For the most part, Thoreau recoils from the idea that we could find some kind of higher reality by looking beyond nature: in the “Friday” chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he asks: “Is not Nature, rightly read, that of which she is commonly taken to be the symbol merely?” As he sees it, the realm of spirit is the physical world, which has a sacred meaning that can be directly perceived. Accordingly, he seeks “to be always on the alert to find God in nature” (Journal, 9/7/51), and to hear “the language which all things and events speak without metaphor” (Walden, IV). Thoreau’s metaphysical convictions compel him to “defend nature’s intrinsic value,” in a way that situates him philosophically in a place “far removed from Emerson and most transcendentalists” (Cafaro 2004, 132–133). In his journal, Thoreau reports that his goal is to “state facts” in such a way that “they shall be significant,” rather than allowing himself to be blind to “the significance of phenomena” (Journal, 11/9/51 & 8/5/51). Evidently, he does not accept that whatever we register through our aesthetic and emotional responses ought to be viewed as unreal. Indeed, Thoreau would argue that the person who is seldom moved by the beauty of things is the one with an inadequate conception of reality, since it is the neutral observer who is less well aware of the world as it is.

To say that nature is inherently significant is to say that natural facts are neither inert nor value-free. Thoreau urges his reader not to “underrate the value of a fact,” since each concrete detail of the world may contain a meaningful truth (“Natural History of Massachusetts”). Note the phrase: the value of a fact. Thoreau does not introduce an artificial distinction between facts and values, or between primary and secondary qualities, since he understands the universe as an organic whole in which mind and matter are inseparable. When we perceive sights, sounds, and textures, we are not standing as disembodied consciousness apart from a world of inanimate mechanisms; rather, we are sentient beings immersed in the sensory world, learning the “essential facts of life” only through “the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us” (Walden, II). The philosopher who seeks knowledge through experience should therefore not be surprised to discover beauty and order in natural phenomena. However, these properties are not projected onto nature from an external perspective—rather, they emerge from within the self-maintaining processes of organic life. And the entire environment, the “living earth” itself, has something like a life of its own, containing but not reducible to the biotic existence of animals and plants (Walden, XVII). This is what he elsewhere describes as the “slumbering subterranean fire in nature which never goes out” (“A Winter Walk”).

Thoreau remarks upon the “much grander significance” of any natural phenomenon “when not referred to man and his needs but viewed absolutely” (Journal, 11/10/51). The world is rich with value that is not of our making, and “whatever we have perceived to be in the slightest degree beautiful is of infinitely more value to us than what we have only as yet discovered to be useful and to serve our purpose” (Faith in a Seed, 144). It is when we are not guilty of imposing our own purposes onto the world that we are able to view it on its own terms. One of the things we then discover is that we are involved in a pluralistic universe, containing many different points of view other than our own. And when we begin to realize “the infinite extent of our relations” (Walden, VIII), we can see that even what does not at first seem to be good for us may have some positive value when considered from a broader perspective. Rather than dismissing squirrels as rodents, for instance, we should see them as “planters of forests,” and be grateful for the role they play in the distribution of seeds (Journal, 10/22/60). Likewise, the “gentle rain which waters my beans and keeps me in the house to-day is not drear and melancholy, but good for me too. Though it prevents my hoeing them, it is of far more worth than my hoeing. If it should continue so long as to cause the seeds to rot in the ground and destroy the potatoes in the low lands, it would still be good for the grass on the uplands, and, being good for the grass, it would be good for me” (Walden, V). Our limited view often keeps us from appreciating the harmonious interdependence of all parts of the natural world: this is not due to “any confusion or irregularity in Nature,” but because of our own incomplete knowledge (Walden, XVI). Thoreau declares that he would be happy “if all the meadows on the earth were left in a wild state,” since in tampering with nature we know not what we do and sometimes end up doing harm as a result (Walden, X). In many cases we find that “unhandselled nature is worth more even by our modes of valuation than our improvements are” (Journal, 11/10/60).

In nature we have access to real value, which can be used as a standard against which to measure our conventional evaluations. An example of the latter is the value that is “arbitrarily attached” to gold, which has nothing to do with its “intrinsic beauty or value” (Journal, 10/13/60). So it is a mistake to rush to California “as if the true gold were to be found in that direction,” when one has failed to appreciate the inherent worth of one’s native soil (Journal, 10/18/55). In the economy of nature, a seed is more precious than a diamond, for it contains “the principle of growth, or life,” and has the ability to become a specific plant or tree (Journal, 3/22/61). The seed not only provides evidence that nature is filled with “creative genius” (Journal, 1/5/56), but it also reminds us that a spark of divinity is present in each human being as well. One of Thoreau’s favorite analogies—not only a metaphor, as he sees it—is that between the ripening of a seed and the development of human potential. “The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling” (Walden, I). What he calls “wildness” is not located only in the nonhuman world; the same creative force is also active in human nature, so that even a literary work of art can reasonably be praised as a manifestation of wildness (see “Walking”). There is “a perfect analogy between the life of the human being and that of the vegetable” (Journal, 5/20/51), and thoughts “spring in man’s brain” in just the same way that “a plant springs and grows by its own vitality” (Journal, 11/8/50 & 4/3/58). Thoreau’s exhortations to follow the promptings of one’s genius are based on the idea that by obeying our own wild nature we are aligning ourselves with a sacred power. What inspires us to realize our highest potential is “the primitive vigor of Nature in us” (Journal, 8/30/56), and this influence is something we are able neither to predict nor to comprehend: as he describes it in the “Ktaadn” chapter of The Maine Woods, nature is “primeval, untamed, and forever untamable,” a godlike force but not always a kind one.

At one point in Walden, Thoreau quips that he usually does not count himself among the “true idealists” who are inclined to reject “the evidence of [their] senses” (Walden, XIV). On the other hand, he has nothing but scorn for the sort of materialism that fails to penetrate the inner mystery of things, discovering “nothing but surface” in its mechanistic observations (Journal, 3/7/59). Instead, he argues that we must approach the world as “nature looking into nature,” aware of the relation between the form of our own perception and what we are able to perceive (Correspondence, 7/21/41). There are reasons for classifying Thoreau as both a naturalist and a romantic, although both of these categories are perhaps too broad to be very helpful. His conception of nature is informed by a syncretic appropriation of Greek, Roman, Indian, and other sources, and the result is an eclectic vision that is uniquely his own. For this reason it is difficult to situate Thoreau within the history of modern philosophy, but one plausible way of doing so would be to describe him as articulating a version of transcendental idealism. If Thoreau is indeed “the American heir to Kant’s critical philosophy,” as he has been called (Oelschlaeger 1991, 136), it is because his investigation of “the relation between the subject of knowledge and its object” builds upon a Kantian insight that Emerson, who viewed the senses as illusory, arguably did not grasp (see Cavell 1992, 94–95). Yet in order to understand why this might be an accurate categorization, we must proceed from Thoreau’s metaphysics to his epistemology.

3. The Ethics of Perception

If one were asked to name the cardinal virtue of Thoreau’s philosophy, it would be hard to identify a better candidate than awareness. He attests to the importance of “being forever on the alert,” and of “the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen” (Walden, IV). This exercise may enable one to create remarkably minute descriptions of a sunset, a battle between red and black ants, or the shapes taken by thawing clay on a sand bank: but its primary value lies in the way it affects the quality of our experience. “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” (Walden, II). Awareness cannot be classified as exclusively a moral or an intellectual virtue, either, since knowing is an inescapably practical and evaluative activity—not to mention, an embodied practice. Thoreau portrays himself not from a presumably neutral or impersonal vantage point, “but from an embodied point of view” in which his somatic sensory experience puts him “knowingly in touch with” his surroundings (Goodman 2012, 36). For such reasons as these, he has sometimes been interpreted as a “philosopher of the senses” (Mooney 2009, 195), who offers an original response to the central problem of modern philosophy as a consequence of recognizing that knowledge is “dependent on the individual’s ability to see,” and that “the world as known is thus radically dependent on character” (Tauber 2001, 4–5).

One of the common tenets of ancient philosophy which was abandoned in the period beginning with Descartes is that a person “could not have access to the truth” without undertaking a process of self-purification that would render him “susceptible to knowing the truth” (Foucault 1997, 278–279). For Thoreau, it was the work of a lifetime to cultivate one’s receptivity to the beauty of the universe. Believing that “the perception of beauty is a moral test” (Journal, 6/21/52), Thoreau frequently chastises himself or humanity in general for failing in this respect. “How much of beauty—of color, as well as form—on which our eyes daily rest goes unperceived by us,” he laments (Journal, 8/1/60); and he worries that “Nature has no human inhabitant who appreciates her” (Walden, IX). Noticing that his sensory awareness has grown less acute since the time of his youth, he speculates that “the child plucks its first flower with an insight into its beauty and significance which the subsequent botanist never retains” (Journal, 7/16/51 & 2/5/52). In order to attain a clear and truthful view of things, we must refine all the faculties of our embodied consciousness, and become emotionally attuned to all the concrete features of the place in which we are located. We fully know only those facts that are “warm, moist, incarnated,” and palpably felt: “A man has not seen a thing who has not felt it” (Journal, 2/23/60). In this way, Thoreau outlines an epistemological task that will occupy him for the rest of his life; namely, to cultivate a way of attending to things that will allow them to be experienced as elements of a meaningful world.

Since our ability to appreciate the significance of phenomena is so easily dulled, it requires a certain discipline in order to become and remain a reliable knower of the world. Like Aristotle, Thoreau believes that the perception of truth “produces a pleasurable sensation”; and he adds that a “healthy and refined nature would always derive pleasure from the landscape” (Journal, 9/24/54 & 6/27/52). Nature will reward the most careful attention paid by a person who is appropriately disposed, but there is only “as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate,—not a grain more. The actual objects which one person will see from a particular hilltop are just as different from those which another will see as the persons are different” (Journal, 11/4/58). One who is in the right state to be capable of giving a “poetic and lively description” of things will find himself “in a living and beautiful world” (Journal, 10/13/60 & 12/31/59). Beauty, like color, does not lie only in the eye of the beholder: flowers, for example, are indeed beautiful and brightly colored. Nevertheless, beauty—and color, for that matter—can exist only where there is a beholder to perceive it (Journal, 6/15/52 & 1/21/38). From his experience in the field making observations of natural phenomena, Thoreau gained the insight “that he, the supposedly neutral observer, was always and unavoidably in the center of the observation” (McGregor 1997, 113). Because all perception of objects has a subjective aspect, the world can be defined as a sphere centered around each conscious perceiver: wherever we are located, “the universe is built around us, and we are central still” (Journal, 8/24/41). This does not mean that we are trapped inside of our own consciousness; rather, the point is that it is only through the lens of our own subjectivity that we have access to the external world.

What we are able to perceive, then, depends not only upon where we are physically situated: it is also contingent upon who we are and what we value, or how our attention is focused. “Objects are concealed from our view, not so much because they are out of the course of our visual ray as because we do not bring our minds and eyes to bear on them…. A man sees only what concerns him” (“Autumnal Tints”). In other words, there is “no such thing as pure objective observation. Your observation, to be interesting, i.e. to be significant, must be subjective” (Journal, 5/6/54). Subjectivity is not an obstacle to truth, according to Thoreau. After all, he says, “the truest description, and that by which another living man can most readily recognize a flower, is the unmeasured and eloquent one which the sight of it inspires” (Journal, 10/13/60). A true account of the world must do justice to all the familiar properties of objects that the human mind is capable of perceiving. Whether this could be done by a scientific description is a vexing question for Thoreau, and one about which he shows considerable ambivalence. One of his concerns is that the scientist “discovers no world for the mind of man with all its faculties to inhabit”; by contrast, there is “more humanity” in “the unscientific man’s knowledge,” since the latter can explain how certain facts pertain to life (Journal, 9/5/51, 2/13/52). He accuses the naturalist of failing to understand color, much less beauty, and asks: “What sort of science is that which enriches the understanding, but robs the imagination?” (Journal, 10/5/61 & 12/25/51) For Thoreau, the most reliable observer is one who can “see things as they are, grand and beautiful” (Journal, 1/7/57)—in other words, the beauty and grandeur of the world really are there to be seen, even if we are not always capable of seeing them. We can easily fail to perceive the value of being if we do not approach the world with the appropriate kind of emotional comportment.

Thoreau sometimes characterizes science as an ideal discipline that will enrich our knowledge and experience: “The true man of science will know nature better by his finer organization; he will smell, taste, see, hear, feel, better than other men. His will be a deeper and finer experience” (“Natural History of Massachusetts”). He observes that scientific terminology can provide the means of apprehending something that we had utterly missed until we had a name for it (see Walls 2012, 108). Yet he also gives voice to the fear that by weighing and measuring things and collecting quantitative data he may actually be narrowing his vision. The scientist “studies nature as a dead language,” and would rather study a dead fish preserved in a jar than a living one in its native element (Journal, 5/10/53 & 11/30/58). In these same journal entries, Thoreau claims that he seeks to experience the significance of nature, and that “the beauty of the fish” is what is most worthy of being measured. On the other hand, when he finds a dead fish in the water, he brings it home to weigh and measure, covering several pages with his statistical findings (Journal, 8/20/54). This is only one of many examples of Thoreau’s fascination with data-gathering, and yet he repeatedly questions its value, as if he does not know what to make of his own penchant for naturalistic research. At the very least, scientific investigations run the risk of being “trivial and petty,” so perhaps what one should do is “learn science and then forget it” (Journal, 1/21/53 & 4/22/52). But Thoreau is more deeply troubled by the possibility that “science is inhuman,” since objects “seen with a microscope begin to be insignificant,” and this is “not the means of acquiring true knowledge” (Journal, 5/1/59 & 5/28/54). Overall, his position is not that a mystical or imaginative awareness of the world is incompatible with knowledge of measurable facts, but that an exclusive focus on the latter would blind us to whatever aspects of reality fall outside the scope of our measurement.

One thing we can learn from all of Thoreau’s comments on scientific inquiry is that he cares very much about the following question: what can we know about the world, and how are we able to know it? Although he admires the precision of scientific information, he wonders if what it delivers is always bound to be “something less than the vague poetic” (Journal, 1/5/50). In principle, a naturalistic approach to reality should be able to capture its beauty and significance; in practice, however, it may be “impossible for the same person to see things from the poet’s point of view and that of the man of science” (Journal, 2/18/52). In that case, the best we can do is try to convey our intimations of the truth about the universe, even if this means venturing far beyond claims that are positivistically verifiable: “I desire to speak somewhere without bounds; like a man in his waking moment, to men in their waking moments; for I am convinced that I cannot exaggerate enough even to lay the foundation of a true expression… . The words which express our faith and piety are not definite; yet they are significant and fragrant like frankincense to superior natures” (Walden, XVIII). We should not arbitrarily limit our awareness to that which can be described with mathematical exactitude: perhaps the highest knowledge available to us, Thoreau suggests, consists in “a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before … it is the lighting up of the mist by the sun” (“Walking”). And perhaps this is not a regrettable fact: “At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable” (Walden, XVII). By acknowledging the limits of what we can know with certainty, we open ourselves up to a wider horizon of experience.

As one commentator points out, Thoreau’s categories—so to speak—are dynamic, since they are constantly being redefined by what we perceive, even as they shape our way of seeing (Peck 1990, 84–85). Every now and then “something will occur which my philosophy has not dreamed of,” Thoreau says, which demonstrates that the “boundaries of the actual are no more fixed and rigid than the elasticity of our imaginations” (Journal, 5/31/53). Since the thoughts of each knowing subject are “part of the meaning of the world,” it is legitimate to ask: “Who can say what is? He can only say how he sees” (11/4/52 & 12/2/46). Truth is radically perspective-dependent, which means that insofar as we are different people we can only be expected to perceive different worlds (Walls 1995, 213). Thoreau’s position might be described as perspectival realism, since he does not conclude that truth is relative but celebrates the diversity of the multifaceted reality that each of us knows in his own distinctive way. “How novel and original must be each new man’s view of the universe!” he exclaims; “How sweet is the perception of a new natural fact,” for it suggests to us “what worlds remain to be unveiled” (Journal, 4/2/52 & 4/19/52). We may never comprehend the intimate relation between a significant fact and the perceiver who appreciates it, but we should trust that it is not in vain to view nature with “humane affections” (Journal, 2/20/57 & 6/30/52). With respect to any given phenomenon, the “point of interest” that concerns us lies neither in the coolly independent object nor in the subject alone, but somewhere in between (Journal, 11/5/57). Witnessing the rise of positivism and its ideal of complete objectivity, Thoreau attempts “to preserve an enchanted world and to place the passionate observer in the center of his or her universe” (Tauber 2001, 20). It is an admirable goal, and one that remains quite relevant in the philosophical climate of the present day.

4. Friendship and Politics

Thoreau’s ethic of personal flourishing is focused upon the problem of how to align one’s daily life in accordance with one’s ultimate ideals. What was enthusiasm in the youth, he argues, must become temperament in the mature person: the “mere vision is little compared with the steady corresponding endeavor thitherward” (Journal, 11/1/51 & 11/24/57). Much of our time ought to be spent “in carrying out deliberately and faithfully the hundred little purposes which every man’s genius must have suggested to him… . The wisely conscious life springs out of an unconscious suggestion” (Wild Fruits, 166). Character, then, can be defined as “genius settled”—the promptings of conscience in themselves are only potentially moral, until we have integrated them into the fabric of our everyday existence and begun to hold ourselves responsible for living up to them (Journal, 3/2/42). Hence, we need to cherish and nurture our capability to discern the difference between the idea and the reality, between what is and what ought to be. It is when we experience dissatisfaction with ourselves or with external circumstances that we are stimulated to act in the interest of making things better.

It follows that the greatest compliment we can pay to another person is to say that he or she enhances our life by inciting us to realize our highest aspirations. So Thoreau views it as deplorable that “we may love and not elevate one another”; the “love that takes us as it finds us, degrades us” (“Chastity and Sensuality”). He speaks of “love” and “friendship” as closely related terms which are tainted by the “trivial dualism” which assumes that the one must exclude the other (Journal, undated 1839 entry). Clearly, what he is concerned about is the kind of love the Greeks called philia—and in his sustained consideration of friendship, as in so many other respects, Thoreau is “squarely in the virtue ethics tradition” (Cafaro 2004, 127). In his ethical writings, the notion of wishing good on behalf of another person is often taken to a severe extreme, as if he does not think it possible to ask too much of love and friendship. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he says: “I value and trust those who love and praise my aspiration rather than my performance” (A Week, “Wednesday”). This is fair enough, but Thoreau may be going too far when he proclaims that a friend should be approached “with sacred love and awe,” and that we profane one another if we do not always meet on religious terms; it is no wonder that he finds himself doubting whether his “idea of a friend” will ever actually be instantiated (Journal, 6/26/40). Nonetheless, as a recent interpreter of Thoreau has pointed out, the “exalted and rarefied ideal” of friendship that he upholds does not imply that a friend is merely instrumental to one’s own self-realization (see Hodder 2010, 129–142). Above all, Thoreau’s discussion of love and friendship provokes us to reflect upon what we can and cannot expect from our closest human relationships, and on their role in a good life.

It would be a mistake to consider Thoreau’s political views in isolation from other aspects of his thought. It is, for example, his understanding of wild nature that informs his sociopolitical ideas. As was noted above, nature is a point of reference outside the polis which can provide valuable moral guidance, reminding us that society is not the measure of all things. Considering the human being as “an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature,” rather than a cultural artifact merely (“Walking”), he looks to the nonhuman natural world and to our inherent “wildness” as a source of evaluation which can empower us to discover that the standards of our civilization are profoundly flawed. His conviction that nature provides us with “a different, truer, and more significant moral reality” than what we find in society provides the “crucial and often overlooked political core” to what has been called his “pastoral environmentalism” (Taylor 1992, 12-24). Withdrawing into the natural world allows us to view the state in a broader context and to conceive of ways in which social values and political structures could be improved radically. This includes unjust laws that ought to be reformed, about which more will be said in a moment, as well as the unwritten rules embodied in prevailing expectations about how one ought to live and what matters. Anticipating Heidegger’s critique of Das Man in section 27 of Being and Time, Thoreau describes the source of these culturally prevalent attitudes as the “They” (Walden, I; see also Bennett 1994, 18-19) and is critical of their pervasive and corrupting influence, their way of making people content with distorted values. For instance, most of his fellow citizens of Massachusetts are able to greet each other politely on the street and in church, thinking of themselves as morally decent while remaining complacent to uphold and perpetuate the institution of slavery in America (see “Slavery in Massachusetts” and “A Plea for Captain John Brown”). In denouncing a specific pernicious attitude that is widespread among his contemporaries, Thoreau also seeks to identify and analyze the general tendency it exemplifies to defer to public opinion: for this reason, his project of social critique is not only relevant to his parochial context but has universal implications. He is acutely conscious of the threat that shared modes of discourse can pose to authentic intersubjectivity.

Thoreau is only half-joking when he tells us that, after becoming frustrated with society, he turned “more exclusively than ever to the woods, where I was better known” (Walden, I). Not only is it true that a degree of solitude and distance from our neighbors may actually improve our relations with them, but by moving away from the center of town we liberate ourselves from a slavish adherence to prevailing attitudes. “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad,” he claims, providing this kind of example: “If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen” (Walden, I and “Life Without Principle”). This warped sense of value is all too common amidst the desperation of modern life, with its “restless, nervous, bustling, trivial” activity (Walden, XVIII). Thoreau builds a critique of American culture upon his conviction 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” (“Life Without Principle”): his polemic aims at consumerism, philistinism, mass entertainment, vacuous applications of technology, and the herd mentality that conforms to the dictates of an anonymous “They.” During his life Thoreau spoke out against the Mexican War and the subjugation of Native America, and campaigned aggressively in favor of bioregionalism and the protection of animals and the natural environment. (It is outrageous that he is often stereotyped as a lifelong recluse and hermit.) Above all, the political issue that aroused his indignation more than any other was slavery. Because Thoreau understood philosophy as a way of life, it is only fitting that philosophical ideals would lead him into political action.

He was an activist involved in the abolitionist movement on many fronts: he participated in the Underground Railroad, protested against the Fugitive Slave Law, and gave support to John Brown and his party. Most importantly perhaps, he provides a justification for principled revolt and a method of nonviolent resistance, both of which would have a considerable influence on revolutionary movements in the twentieth century. In his essay on “Civil Disobedience,” originally published as “Resistance to Civil Government,” Thoreau defends the validity of conscientious objection to unjust laws, which he claims ought to be transgressed at once. Political institutions as such are regarded by him with distrust, and although he arguably overestimates the extent to which it is possible to disassociate oneself from them, he convincingly insists that social consensus is not a guarantee of rectitude or truth. One of the most valuable points he makes against the critics of John Brown is that a person should not be dismissed as “insane” by virtue of dissenting from the majority: Brown’s anger is grounded upon an awareness of the fact that slavery is a violation of human rights, and Thoreau berates the law-abiding citizens of Massachusetts for looking the other way (“A Plea for Captain John Brown”). Passively and quietly allowing an unjust practice to continue is tantamount to collaborating with evil, he claims, articulating a principle of noncompliance that would inspire the philosophically informed nonviolent resistance of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, among others.

When Thoreau argues that all of Brown’s actions were justified because he was an inspired reformer with a sacred vocation, he is appealing to something like the notion of natural right. His essay in this respect has a more general pertinence to debates about the individual moral reformer in relation to community norms. It also raises the issue of whether political violence can be justified as the lesser of evils, or in cases where it may be the only available way of ending injustice. Usually, he prefers nonviolent forms of advocacy such as creating “counter friction to stop the machine” by opposing, and acting in defiance of, practices and laws that are not righteous (“Civil Disobedience”). Speaking about the act of protest that led him to spend a night in jail, he expresses characteristic irony by saying that “I might have resisted forcibly with more or less effect, might have run amok against society; but I preferred that society should run amok against me, it being the desperate party” (Walden, VIII). Although at times it sounds as though Thoreau is advocating anarchy, what he demands is a better government, and what he refuses to acknowledge is the authority of one that has become so morally corrupt as to lose the consent of those governed. “There will never be a really free and enlightened State, ” he argues, “until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly” (“Civil Disobedience”). There are simply more sacred laws to obey than the laws of society, and a just government—should there ever be such a thing, he adds—would not be in conflict with the conscience of the ethically upright individual.

5. Locating Thoreau

Thoreau has somewhat misleadingly been classified as a New England transcendentalist, and—even though he never rejected this label—it does not fit in many ways. Some of his major differences from Emerson have already been discussed, and further differences appear when Thoreau is compared to such figures as Orestes Brownson, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott. A history of transcendentalism in New England which appeared in the late nineteenth century mentions Thoreau only once, in passing (Frothingham 1886, 133). And a more recent history of the movement concludes that Thoreau had little in common with this group of thinkers, who were for the most part committed to some version of Christianity, to a dualistic understanding of mind and matter, and to the related idea that sense experience is unreliable (Boller 1974, 29–35 & 176). A crucial step in Thoreau’s intellectual development occurred when he “disassociated himself from Emerson’s Transcendentalist view of nature as symbol” (Slicer 2013, 181), as a current scholar notes. It was suggested above that a better way of situating Thoreau within the Western philosophical tradition is to consider him a kind of transcendental idealist, in the spirit of Kant. For reasons that ought to be obvious by now, he should be of interest to students of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling—all of whom he studied at first or second hand—and possibly Schopenhauer. Thoreau was a capable and enthusiastic classicist, whose study of ancient Greek and Roman authors convinced him that philosophy ought to be a lived practice: for this reason, he can profitably be grouped with other nineteenth-century thinkers, such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who were critics of philosophy in the early modern period. Yet he also has the distinction of being among the first Western philosophers to be significantly influenced by ancient Chinese and Indian thought. He anticipates Bergson and Merleau-Ponty in his attention to the dynamics of the embodied mind, and shares with Peirce and James a concern for problems of knowledge as they arise within practical experience.

Contemporary philosophers are increasingly discovering how much Thoreau has to teach—especially, in the areas of knowledge and perception, and in ethical debates about the value of land and life. His affinities with the pragmatic and phenomenological traditions, and the enormous resources he offers for environmental philosophy, have also started to receive more attention—and Walden itself continues to be encountered by readers as a remarkable provocation to philosophical thought. Still, it remains true that the political aspect of Thoreau’s philosophy has come closer to receiving its due than any of these others: whether or not this is because such prominent figures as Gandhi and Martin Luther King cited Thoreau as an inspiration, it has resulted in a disproportionate focus on what is only one part of an integral philosophy, a part that can hardly be understood in isolation from the others. Even if it is a sign of Thoreau’s peculiar greatness that subsequent American philosophy has not known what to make of him, it is a shame if his exclusion from the mainstream philosophical canon has kept his voice from being heard by some of those who might be in a position to appreciate it. Then again, as Thoreau himself notes, it is never too late to give up our prejudices. Others have observed (see Slicer 2013, 182–183) that, based on the amount of prominent work on Thoreau as a philosopher which has recently appeared, his profile seems to be ever so gradually rising on the American philosophical landscape.


Works By Thoreau

  • Walden; or, Life in the Woods, ed. Jeffrey Cramer, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. Originally published in 1854. Parenthetical citations indicate with roman numerals which of Walden’s 18 chapters is the source of each quotation.
  • The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, 14 volumes, ed. B. Torrey and F. Allen, New York: Dover, 1962. Originally published in 1906. Parenthetical citations give the date of each entry.
  • The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Walter Harding and Carl Bode, New York: New York University Press, 1958. Citations give the date of the letter quoted.
  • Consciousness in Concord: The Text of Thoreau’s Hitherto “Lost Journal” (1840–1841), ed. Perry Miller, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958. Citations give the date of each entry.
  • The Indians of Thoreau: Selections from the Indian Notebooks, ed. Richard Fleck, Albuquerque: Hummingbird Press, 1974.
  • Early Essays and Miscellanies, ed. Joseph Moldenhauer et al., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.
  • A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, ed. C. Hovde et al., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980. Originally published in 1849.
  • The Maine Woods, New York: Penguin Books, 1988. Originally published in 1864.
  • Cape Cod, ed. J. Moldenhauer, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988. Originally published in 1865.
  • Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings, ed. Bradley Dean, Washington, DC: Island Press, 1993.
  • Wild Fruits, ed. Bradley Dean, New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.
  • Collected Essays and Poems, ed. Elizabeth Hall Witherell, New York: Penguin / Library of America, 2001. Contains “Natural History of Massachusetts” (originally published in 1842), “A Winter Walk” (1843), “Civil Disobedience” (1849), “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854), “A Plea for Captain John Brown” (1860), “Walking” (1862), “Autumnal Tints” (1862), “Life Without Principle” (1863), and “Chastity and Sensuality” (1865).

Selected Works by Other Authors

  • Andersen, Nathan, 2010, “Exemplars in Environmental Ethics: Taking Seriously the Lives of Thoreau, Leopold, Dillard and Abbey,” Ethics, Place and Environment, 13: 43–55.
  • Arsic, Branka, 2016, Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Bates, Stanley, 2012, “Thoreau and Emersonian Perfectionism,” in Furtak, Ellsworth, and Reid 2012, 14–30.
  • Bennett, Jane, 1994, Thoreau’s Nature: Ethics, Politics, and the Wild, London: Sage Publications.
  • Blakemore, Peter, 2000, “Reading Home: Thoreau, Nature, and the Phenomenon of Inhabitation,” in Thoreau’s Sense of Place, ed. Richard Schneider, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 115–132.
  • Borjesson, Gary, 1994, “A Sounding of Walden’s Philosophical Depth,” Philosophy and Literature, 18: 287–308.
  • Buell, Lawrence, 1995, The Environmental Imagination, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Cafaro, Philip, 2004, Thoreau’s Living Ethics: Walden and the Pursuit of Virtue, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
  • Callicott, J. Baird, 1999, Beyond the Land Ethic, Albany: SUNY Press.
  • Cavell, Stanley, 1988, In Quest of the Ordinary, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • –––, 1992, The Senses of Walden, expanded edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Originally published in 1972.
  • –––, 2000, “Night and Day: Heidegger and Thoreau,” in Appropriating Heidegger, ed. J. Faulconer and M. Wrathall, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 30–49.
  • Chapman, Robert L., 2002, “The Goat-stag and the Sphinx: The Place of the Virtues in Environmental Ethics,” Environmental Values, 11: 129–144.
  • Dull, Carl J., 2012, “Zhuangzi and Thoreau: Wandering, Nature, and Freedom,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 39: 222–239.
  • Eldridge, Richard, 2003, “Cavell on American Philosophy and the Idea of America,” in Stanley Cavell, ed. Richard Eldridge, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 172–189.
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1993, “Nature,” in Essays: First and Second Series, ed. John Gabriel Hunt, New York: Gramercy / Library of Freedom, 282–297. Originally published in 1836.
  • Foucault, Michel, 1997, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow, New York: The New Press.
  • Frothingham, Octavius B., 1886, Transcendentalism in New England: A History, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
  • Furtak, Rick Anthony, 2003, “Thoreau’s Emotional Stoicism,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 17: 122–132.
  • –––, 2007, “Skepticism and Perceptual Faith: Henry David Thoreau and Stanley Cavell on Seeing and Believing,” Transactions of the Charles Sanders Peirce Society, 43: 542–561.
  • Furtak, Rick Anthony; Ellsworth, Jonathan; and Reid, James D., editors, 2012, Thoreau’s Importance for Philosophy, New York: Fordham University Press.
  • Garber, Frederick, 1977, Thoreau’s Redemptive Imagination, New York: New York University Press.
  • Goodman, Russell B., 2012, “Thoreau and the Body,” in Furtak, Ellsworth, and Reid 2012, 31–42.
  • Hahn, Stephen, 2000, On Thoreau, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  • Harding, Walter, 1962, The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography, New York: Dover.
  • Heidegger, Martin, 1996, Being and Time, Joan Stambaugh (trans.), Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Hodder, Alan D., 2001, Thoreau’s Ecstatic Witness, New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • –––, 2010, “’Let Him Be to Me a Spirit’: Paradoxes of True Friendship in Emerson and Thoreau,” in Lysaker and Rossi (eds.) 2010, 127–147.
  • Jolley, Kelly Dean, 1996, “Walden: Philosophy and Knowledge of Humankind,” Reason Papers, 21: 36–52.
  • Kuklick, Bruce, 2001, A History of Philosophy in America: 1720–2000, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Lysaker, John T.; and Rossi, William (eds.), 2010, Emerson and Thoreau: Figures of Friendship, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
  • McGregor, Robert Kuhn, 1997, A Wider View of the Universe: Henry Thoreau’s Study of Nature, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  • McKenzie, Jonathan, 2016, The Political Thought of Henry David Thoreau, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.
  • Milder, Robert, 1995, Reimagining Thoreau, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Mooney, Edward, 2009, Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy from Thoreau to Cavell, London: Continuum.
  • –––, 2015, Excursions with Thoreau: Poetry, Philosophy, Religion, London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Moran, Michael, 1967, “Henry David Thoreau,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards, New York: Free Press, 8: 121–123.
  • Nagley, Winfield, 1954, “Thoreau on Attachment, Detachment, and Non-Attachment,” Philosophy East and West, 3: 307–320.
  • Norton, Bryan G., 1999, “Pragmatism, Adaptive Management, and Sustainability,” Environmental Values, 8: 451–466.
  • Oelschlaeger, Max, 1991, The Idea of Wilderness, New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Peck, H. Daniel, 1990, Thoreau’s Morning Work, New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Reid, James D., 2012, “Speaking Extravagantly: Philosophical Territory and Eccentricity in Walden,” in Furtak, Ellsworth, and Reid 2012, 43–67.
  • Richardson, Robert, 1986, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Saito, Naoko, 2012, “Is Thoreau More Cosmopolitan than Dewey?,” Philosophy and Literature, 7: 71–85.
  • Sattelmeyer, Robert, 1988, Thoreau’s Reading, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Sayre, Robert, 1977, Thoreau and the American Indians, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Slicer, Deborah, 2013, “Thoreau’s Evanescence,” Philosophy and Literature, 37: 179–198.
  • Slovic, Scott, 1992, Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
  • Tauber, Alfred, 2001, Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Taylor, Bob Pepperman, 1992, Our Limits Transgressed: Environmental Political Thought in America, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
  • –––, 1994, “Henry Thoreau, Nature, and American Democracy,” Journal of Social Philosophy, 25: 46–64.
  • Vilhauer, Benjamin, 2008, “The Theme of Time in Thoreau’s Cape Cod,” The Concord Saunterer, 16: 33–44.
  • Walls, Laura Dassow, 1995, Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • –––, 2012, “Articulating a Huckleberry Cosmos: Thoreau’s Moral Ecology of Knowledge,” in Furtak, Ellsworth, and Reid 2012, 91–111.
  • Ward, Andrew, 2007, “Ethics and Observation: Dewey, Thoreau, and Harman,” Metaphilosophy, 38: 591–611.
  • Wilshire, Bruce, 2000, The Primal Roots of American Philosophy, University Park, PA: Penn State Press.
  • Wilson, Jeffrey, 2004, “Autobiography as Critique in Thoreau,” Journal of Philosophical Research, 29: 29–46.