This year our nation celebrates the bicentennial of Henry David Thoreau. But few of the commemorations have considered Thoreau as a philosopher, focusing instead on Thoreau as a champion of civil disobedience and the author of Walden. With this broadcast, Entitled Opinions takes on the task.
Thoreau the philosopher? It's a tough sell, according to Stanford Prof. Andrea Nightingale, who teaches a course on Thoreau and is the featured guest for this episode. Philosophers don't consider Thoreau one of their tribe because “he didn't mount arguments.” She continued: “Then and now, intellectual labor has always been privileged over manual labor. For Thoreau, you needed to learn things with your hands. You needed to get your hands dirty... I think manual labor is part of his philosophy in a very significant way.”
Nightingale and Harrison discuss a common phrase in Walden: “to be awake,” which Thoreau took in a spiritual sense as a state of being. For him, it involved a deep sense of attunement to the natural world, in what Thoreau called an “infinite expectation of the dawn.”
Thoreau's famous efforts to simplify not only encompassed the obvious, practical level, but assumed spiritual dimensions as well. What does his examination of limits mean in a country that defines itself by excess? As Nightingale notes, today online kits offer the opportunity to recreate a Walden cabin in your own backyard. Has Thoreau's message been lost on a consumerist society?
(Harrison has made his own contribution to the bicentennial with “The True American,” a review essay in the New York Review of Books here.)
“Your metaphysical desire can have an infinite object which is God. If you let go of that, your unlimited desires just want more and more and more.”
“Thoreau found in nature an infinite manifestation of something so deep and fulfilling and it kept expanding and getting more vibrant.”
“He wanted to hear the language of the earth. … He was very interested in the wind in the trees – one way in which nature is publishing a set of ideas.”
“He thought you could be awake every day.”
“His point of course was to learn how to dwell on the earth in this mode of vibrancy.”
Stanford Prof. Andrea Nightingale writes and teaches Greek and Roman philosophy and literature. She also teaches a course on Henry David Thoreau. She has written on the philosophy and literature of ecology as well. Nightingale, a frequent Entitled Opinions guest, is the author of Genres in Dialogue: Plato and the Construct of Philosophy and Spectacles of Truth: Theoria in its Cultural Context (both with Cambridge University Press) and Once out of Nature: Augustine on Time and the Body (University of Chicago Press). She has been awarded a fellowship at the Stanford Humanities Center, an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.