Dannheisig 1 Jan-Hendrik Dannheisig Susanne Hamscha, M. A. Re(dis)covering America: Emerson, Thoreau, and American Democracy 10 April 2012 Transcendentalism in “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau’s Politics of Individuality and Nature Dannheisig 2 Contents Introduction 1. Transcendentalism a. Nature b. Introspective Conscience and Politics 2. Political Individualism a. Ethical and Political (In)justice b. Critique of Democracy Conclusion Bibliography 2 3 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Dannheisig 3 Introduction Henry David Thoreau was part of a movement called American Transcendentalism.
To illuminate Thoreau’s understanding of democracy, political action and justice this paper will focus on the influence transcendentalism had on his ideas and ideals in his essay “Resistance to Civil Government” better known as “Civil Disobedience. ” Mostly found in his naturalist writings like Walden, The Maine Woods or his journals, Thoreau’s transcendental influences shape his political writings just as much. In Thoreau’s thinking there is an underlying dichotomy between nature and artificial social constructs, like governments or churches.
This dichotomy is the basis for his distrust in majority rule and mindless compliance with laws by the public. Thoreau focuses on an individualized responsibility for one’s actions by declaring only introspectively found truths a sufficient basis for one’s conscience and therefore one’s actions. This is where transcendentalism is found in his argumentation. The transcendental approach to all of reality is through introspection, finding knowledge and truth in ourselves instead of in empirical experience or law.
Thoreau incorporates this idea of introspective conscience into a framework of political realities, like slavery in the United States at the time or the Mexican-American War. This application of a highly philosophical understanding of reality onto complex political problems during the time is the reason “Civil Disobedience” received so much attention. Thoreau makes the case for more individual reflection and his stances are strongly critical of majority rule. He questions the legitimacy of governments that create unjust laws, acceptance of slavery being the prime example of injustice.
He believed that humans are innately good and that only society, with its artificial social constructs, corrupts them. In the following chapters I will show how transcendental influence is the underlying for all his politically crass positions and analyze their implications. Dannheisig 4 1. Transcendentalism Transcendentalism is a philosophy of individualism and individualism is the ground of American thought. 1 The New England movement of American Transcendentalism, led by Ralph Waldo Emerson, arose in the 1830s and 1840s, as a response to cultural and societal developments towards materialism and intellectualism.
Transcendentalism can be linked to Romanticism in its disdain of rationalization of nature. Critical of industrialization both movements focus on reorientation towards the natural experience, unaltered by societal ambitions like greed or, to create norms and rules for wholesome living. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his influential essay “The Transcendentalist” in 1842: “The Transcendentalist adopts the whole connection of spiritual doctrine. He believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy.
He wishes that the spiritual principle should be suffered to demonstrate itself to the end, in all possible applications to the state of man, without the admission of anything unspiritual; that is, anything positive, dogmatic, personal. Thus, the spiritual measure of inspiration is the depth of the thought, and never, who said it? ” Transcendentalism contrasts materialism and idealism. Losing faith in their identity many of the growing elite saw developments of brutal expansion, class stratification by means of industrialization, urbanization and the consequentially following conflict as unbearable and not in coherence with their beliefs.
The right to rule, politically and culturally, given to the elite by presumptions of racism and classism, seemed outdated by upcoming “working-class radicalism. “2 The civil commotion during this period of economic transition towards a regime of industrialization and away from traditional Jeffersonian agrarianism gave way to social movements that rethought the focus the American society should concentrate on. One of these social movements was Transcendentalism. Transcendentalists devoted their energy towards the conquest of cultural authority and they achieved it in many ways.
The “Transcendental Club,” as the public referred to the gathering organized by Emerson and Thoreau included influential literary participants like Elizabeth Peabody, Margaret Fuller, Orestes Brownson, William Henry Channing and occasionally Nathaniel Hawthorne (who himself was not a transcendentalist). They defined themselves as a group of liberal minded individuals who share the common believe that the way to establish principles of human brotherhood and democratic equality was to 1 2 Newman, 35 Newman, 39 Dannheisig 5 reestablish one’s individual relationship to the “divinely ordained laws of nature. 3 The disconnect in culture and socioeconomic conditions between workers and capitalists was so troubling to this group that different utopian experiments grew out of this discontent, one of them being Thoreau’s residence in Walden Pond, another being Brook Farm. This was a project started by George and Sophia Ripley, to create a community where manual work and leisure would be equally shared and therefore create a peaceful and balanced community where everyone could choose to do the work he or she saw the most pleasure in, therefore destroying some of the unnatural structures society had implemented them with, like division of labor.
The project was financially unsuccessful and eventually failed when some of the buildings burned down. 4 The Transcendentalist movement did not have one direction that it followed but was by definition only in agreement over the fact that nature is the remedy to societal disfiguration. To transcend societal restraints means to refocus on what the “real” and “natural” behaviors and convictions are. The easiest way to understand what is natural to a Transcendentalist is to comprehend what is not.
To Emerson secularization and the development of fascination with science and the intellectualism that grew with it bore dangers to the individual and its personal formation. A development away from the individual experience of one’s surroundings and towards the study of empiric studies would create structures of knowledge that are unquestioned by its students who believe that only what is written is true. “Roles imposed on the individual by society and its institutions impeded individual expression and freedom, restricted choice, and ultimately resulted in self-alienation. 5 A lot of the influence that formed transcendentalist thought came from Romanticism. The understanding that sense is more important than intellect and passion more important than reason was at the core of Romanticism. The natural form of behavior could only be found in absence of societal reasoning. This train of thought goes back to Kant, who argued that knowledge was found in the subjectiveness of human thinking, rather than in the objects of experience. Anything valuable to know is what an individual has personally and subjectively encountered and actual knowledge is only formed through this subjective perception. 6 3 4
Newman, 42 Crowe, 161 5 Bingham, 19 6 Bingham, 20 Dannheisig 6 In the following chapters I will elaborate what is meant by nature and use examples from Emerson’s and Thoreau’s writing to explain their different approaches. I will then continue to explain what introspective conscience entails and how this translates into Thoreau’s politics. a. Nature Nature, in a way, is just as much a metaphorical concept as it is an actual reality when it comes to Transcendentalism. Metaphorically, nature is the absence of the negative effects of society. Literally, nature is the physical world surrounding us, and moreover life itself.
Emerson wrote in his influential essay Nature, which basically brought Transcendentalism to life: “When we speak of nature in this manner, we have a distinct but most poetical sense in the mind. We mean the integrity of impression made by manifold natural objects. It is this which distinguishes the stick of timber of the wood-cutter, from the tree of the poet. ” He defines nature as the metaphorical influence the literal impressions of nature have on a person. Nature is “all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and y own body [… ]. “7 Nature is the source of influence, where the individual finds truths. Emerson goes on to explain that physical laws of nature translate to laws of moral nature as he sees God in nature. Thoreau was highly influenced by Emerson and the essays Nature and The American Scholar essentially encouraged Thoreau to his stay at Walden Pond and his continuous transcendental endeavors. Another influence on Thoreau was Rousseau. Rousseau was interested in the “natural man,” meaning the individual without influences from society.
Both, Thoreau and Rousseau agreed that in a natural state, humans were good and only society altered that characteristic. 8 To study and understand the laws of nature and to experience it will, in Thoreau’s understanding assist anyone in individual self-realization and thus create social-change. His analysis of the natural surroundings of his house in Walden allow the conclusion that Thoreau believed the understanding of natural behaviors were essential to a functioning human society, more so than the modern institutions the Transcendentalists so strongly despised. 7 8 Emerson, 80 Bingham, 21 Dannheisig 7 b.
Introspective Conscience and Politics The morality Thoreau presents in Civil Disobedience arises from the higher law that he can find in nature. As I explained above, only in an environment of natural subjectivity, when societal pressures and ideas have been lifted, man can return to his natural goodness. To get to this point a fair amount of distance from society is necessary. This is what Thoreau was practicing when he went to Walden Pond and this is where he wrote Civil Disobedience. “In Thoreau’s mind, the individual is responsible both for uncovering these “higher laws” of nature and for employing them to evaluate and direct his conduct.
Disagreements and moral conflicts within a community of people living in accord with these laws are impossible: as nature is harmonized, so too will be the conscientious actions derived from natural observation. “9 Thoreau also explains that once an individual has discovered a moral truth about a subject, or as he would call it a “natural law,” he has to abide by it. In his view, to know of a moral or higher law creates an obligation to obey it. This can obviously entail political action as many a truth can form a situation that does not apply to it, and therefore needs to be altered.
Thoreau is, however, widely received as a passive theorist when it comes to political action. In Civil Disobedience he explains that “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. ” This argumentation basically states that anyone can claim moral high ground as long as they do not take part in the crime or injustice.
There is, however, a problem with this reasoning as one’s experienced liberties and socioeconomic circumstances might be enabled by the unjust system. If Thoreau’s position as a scholar and free citizen is supported by a regime that also assists in slavery, is he not taking part in that injustice? And, as we have seen above, is he not obliged to obey the natural law and therefore take action against the injustice? 10 Thoreau’s conviction on his introspectively found truths, which he states include slavery as unjust, therefore create a moral obligation. But does it also create a political obligation for action towards change?
In the next chapters I will illustrate how this quagmire between moral and political obligations plays into his definitions of justice and Thoreau’s strong critique of democracy. 9 10 Jenco, 359 Turner, 450 Dannheisig 8 2. Political Individualism Thoreau sees Americans as shortsighted. The political arena is thoughtless and ill-considered as it is controlled by processes and structures that support immediate reaction over contemplation due to power struggles and election cycles. This regime of fast-paced decision-making is the norm and all the laws that come through this system are part of this norm.
Since, however, this system is democratically elected it possesses legitimacy to rule. Thoreau questions this legitimacy when he declares that righteous behavior can only come from individual introspection and not from established laws and norms. When Thoreau decides not to pay his taxes because of his inner conviction that he cannot be a part of an injustice (in this case, supporting a government financially that assists in slavery) he breaks the law, but he also breaks the norm by questioning and evaluating a government’s performance through personal perception and then acting on these evaluations.
While Thoreau’s writings are meant to influence others into adopting the transcendental approach towards morality, his concepts’ overall aim is to improve the individual instead of the community. Individualists’ main concern is for themselves, so that their opinions and behaviors are steady and consistent. This inner behavior however, can translate into external actions, like enabling freedoms for others and effect reform.
The individualist’s conscience is formed introspectively but he, generally speaking but also Thoreau specifically, has principles that are generalizable and also conform to universal values and political ideals. 11 Overall, Thoreau despises political conformity but values liberty and justice and conforms to them, if present. His intention was to stand outside institutions and illustrate how conscience has consequences but not necessarily take part in the political games because he, as mentioned above, disliked the political arena and its’ continuous structures, to say the least.
Transcendental influence can strongly be identified here as the desire to create your own structures and not only continue the work of precursors is one of the main ideas proposed by Emerson in his speech American Scholar. Not only does Thoreau see his moral obligations not constructed by laws and societal norms but by his introspection, but he also does not see the 11 Rosenblum, 83 Dannheisig 9 political realm as the utmost important arena. His individualism goes so far that the improvement of himself actually becomes much more important to him than the transformation of society. 2 a. Ethical and Political (In)justice To Thoreau there was one ultimate sin: slavery. This sin is assisted by the government that therefore creates instant need to be acted disobedient against. To understand why slavery is sinful we can look back at Emerson again, who, stating that once societal influences have been stripped off an individual he or she will live by simple moral guidelines that are only connected to nature’s laws. For this to happen, though, a person needs freedom: freedom from sin and freedom from oppression.
Emerson disliked all systems of oppression and his main objective was the proliferation of individual mental emancipation. Thoreau, also agreeing with the principles of individual liberty and being a supporter of self-discovery of higher laws after stopping to participate in sinful behavior, logically opposed slavery. It has to be taken into account that this abolitionist sentiment in the transcendental movement was not necessarily coupled with the believe that all African-Americans should have the same rights or even be a bigger part of American society.
The strongest cases for Thoreau against slavery was the sin a slave-holder performed, which kept him from introspection, as well as the limits imposed on slaves which kept them from experiencing nature without constraints. Basically anything that kept an individual from experiencing nature is ethically unjust. Political injustice, for Thoreau, is something else. Thoreau was the one that coined the term “the government is best that governs least” and his thoughts on governmental systems can be described in a variety of ways from libertarian to individual anarchist. 3 Drawing back to Transcendentalism, individual experience of nature forms natural laws, which a person has to obey. Any form of government that imposes different laws than the ones already in place by the process of introspection therefore acts oppressive and therefore unjust. 12 13 Bennett, 5 Jenco, 381 Dannheisig 10 b. Critique of Democracy Having established in the chapters above that Thoreau’s conviction of individual consciousness is paramount to his understanding of a functioning society and taking into account that only he subjective relationship one has with nature can lead to the discovery of natural laws, or morals, one can easily deduct that democracy is not a form of government that works well in this mindset, or most forms of government for that matter. Democracy is majority rule. This by itself already runs against the idea of Thoreau’s disconnection of widely accepted norms. Any form of social construct that is agreed upon by the majority is unnatural by definition as it underlines the absence of uninfluenced experience. This questions Thoreau’s compliance with democracy even before taking into account what he proposes in Civil Disobedience.
In Civil Disobedience Thoreau explains the necessity of denying to pay a special tax for the funding of the Mexican-American War. Thoreau argues that he cannot be part of the evil that is the government that wants to go to war with Mexico to proliferate the slavery system. In denying to pay this tax, he commits a crime. This crime, taken only as an action by one highly moral person, is not a big deal. Thoreau knows the consequences of his action and therefore decides to impose his own values over the one governments’ therefore making a policy decision by claiming non-participation in one specific area of governance.
By doing so he basically denies the democratic legitimacy of the government. If this behavior is acted out by all Americans then representative elections become unnecessary as every topic is decided by the public either sponsoring it financially or not. The implications can go even more dramatic as immediate underfunding of the government will lead to government shut down and therefore might induce instability and revolution. The term “civil disobedience” has a very positive and peaceful connotation today because civil rights leaders all over the world have applied it by redefining it as peaceful protest and by abstaining from any evil doing.
However, Thoreau’s approach of refusing to pay taxes in a democratically elected government shows his prioritizing of the individual over the community. While any decision the group/community/society makes is vulnerable to civil disobedience, Thoreau argues that the natural laws are universal and in a world where everyone achieved introspection only the natural laws would be necessary. Dannheisig 11 Conclusion Transcendentalism runs through Thoreau’s political thought like a silver lining. Every aspect of his argumentation in Civil Disobedience can be traced back to his understanding of what truth is.
Thoreau believes that individual perception of nature is the answer to the hard transitions of economical regime change towards industrialization, enlightenment and slavery that challenged America during the mid-19th century. Thoreau approach towards these problems is through the act of civil disobedience, where one resists taking part in an evil deed acted out by a government. In his case he denies to pay a tax supporting an upcoming war that he doesn’t agree with. This act of disobedience, can be seen as a show of discontent or as encouragement for revolution, depending on the depths you plan to theorize with.
After analyzing the text thoroughly, my conclusion is that Thoreau was antidemocratic and protectionist about his local surroundings. His essay tries to explain truth and moral and its obligations in a comprehensive approach regarding everyone but it misses the opportunity for an explanation on how to realistically transform a society by these standards. If he had taken a bigger approach towards societal transition his work could have become much more influential as a political theory, as it already includes a social contract theory and recommendations for the size of a government.
I will conclude this paper with a quote from Civil Disobedience that summarizes his tone, his political drive and his strains of militancy: Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison…. where the State places those who are not with her, but against her,– the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor. … 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.
If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible. Dannheisig 12 Bibliography Arendt, Hannah. Crises of the republic. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973. Bennett, Jane. Thoreau’s nature: ethics, politics, and the wild. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1994.
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