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Henry David Thoreau

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Title: Henry David Thoreau


1
  • If a man does not keep pace with his companions,
    perhaps it is because he hears a different
    drummer. Let him step to the music which he
    hears, however measured or far away.

Henry David Thoreau 1817-1862
2
Thoreau's appeal to modern generations springs
not only from his power with words but from the
relevance of his ideas. His celebration of nature
and his call to simplify have stirred countless
readers who yearn to escape a society that is
glutted with gadgetry and destroys nature in the
name of progress. He has become a patron saint to
those who feel that cause of conscience is more
important than the laws devised by man. His
"Civil Disobedience" has provided a philosophy
and a handbook for movements of passive
resistance throughout the world.
3
1849, original title Resistance to Civil
Government
  • I heartily accept the motto, "That government is
    best which governs least" and I should like to
    see it acted up to more rapidly and
    systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts
    to this, which also I believe--"That government
    is best which governs not at all" and when men
    are prepared for it, that will be the kind of
    government which they will have. Government is at
    best but an expedient but most governments are
    usually, and all governments are sometimes,
    inexpedient. The objections which have been
    brought against a standing army, and they are
    many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may
    also at last be brought against a standing
    government. The standing

4
army is only an arm of the standing government.
The government itself, which is only the mode
which the people have chosen to execute their
will, is equally liable to be abused and
perverted before the people can act through it.
Witness the present Mexican war, the work of
comparatively a few individuals using the
standing government as their tool for in the
outset, the people would not have consented to
this measure (837-38).
5
Governments show thus how successfully men can
be imposed upon, even impose on themselves, for
their own advantage. It is excellent, we must all
allow. Yet this government never of itself
furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity
with which it got out of its way. It does not
keep the country free. It does not settle the
West. It does not educate. The character inherent
in the American people has done all that has been
accomplished and it would have done somewhat
more, if the government had not sometimes got in
its way. For government is an expedient, by which
men would fain succeed in letting one another
alone and, as has been said, when it is most
expedient, the governed are most let alone by it
(838).
6
  • But, to speak practically and as a citizen,
    unlike those who call themselves no-government
    men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at
    once a better government. Let every man make
    known what kind of government would command his
    respect, and that will be one step toward
    obtaining it (838).

7
  • The only obligation which I have a right to
    assume is to do at any time what I think right.
    It is truly enough said that a corporation has no
    conscience but a corporation of conscientious
    men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never
    made men a whit more just and, by means of their
    respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily
    made the agents of injustice. A common and
    natural result of an undue respect for the law
    is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel,
    captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and
    all, marching in admirable order over hill and
    dale to the wars, against their wills, ay,
    against their common sense and consciences, which
    makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces
    a palpitation of the heart (839).

8
  • How does it become a man to behave toward the
    American government today? I answer, that he
    cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I
    cannot for an instant recognize that political
    organization as my government which is the
    slave's government also (840).

9
  • In other words, when a sixth of the population
    of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge
    of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is
    unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army,
    and subjected to military law, I think that it is
    not too soon for honest men to rebel and
    revolutionize. What makes this duty the more
    urgent is that fact that the country so overrun
    is not our own, but ours is the invading army
    (840).

10
Thoreau lived at Walden Pond near Concord from
late March 1845 and September 1847. Walden, or
Life in the Woods was published in 1854.
I went to the woods because I wished to live
deliberately, to front only the essential facts
of live, and see if I could not learn what it had
to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover
that I had not lived.
11
Walden, or Life in the Woods
I do not propose to write an ode to dejection,
but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the
morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake
my neighbors up.
12
From The American Adam by R. W. B. Lewis, page
21.
  • The opportunity that Thoreau looked out upon
    from his hut at Walden was for no such
    superficial accomplishment, but for a wholeness
    of spirit realized in a direct experience of the
    whole of nature. The words nature and
    wholeness have been overworked and
    devitalized, and now they are suspect but they
    glow with health in the imaginatively ordered
    prose of Henry Thoreau.
  • The narrator of Walden is a witness to a truly
    new world which the speaker alone has visited,
    from which he has just returned, and which he is
    sure every indivdual ought to visit at least
    oncenot the visible world around Walden Pond,
    but an inner world which the Walden experience
    allowed him to explore.

13
I. Economy the philosophy of living Norton
Anthology 853
WHEN I WROTE the following pages, or rather the
bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile
from any neighbor, in a house which I had built
myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord,
Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor
of my hands only. I lived there two years and
two months. At present I am a sojourner in
civilized life again (853).
14
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
What is called resignation is confirmed
desperation. From the desperate city you go into
the desperate country, and have to console
yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.
A stereotyped but unconscious despair is
concealed even under what are called the games
and amusements of mankind. There is no play in
them, for this comes after work. But it is a
characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate
things (856).
15
18. Conclusion, Norton Anthology 931
18. Conclusion, Norton Anthology 931
However mean your life is, meet it and live it
do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not
so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are
richest. The fault-finder will find faults even
in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You
may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling,
glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting
sun is reflected from the windows of the
almshouse as brightly as from the rich man's
abode the snow melts before its door as early in
the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may
live as contentedly there, and have as cheering
thoughts, as in a palace (936).
Why should we be in such desperate haste to
succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a
man does not keep pace with his companions,
perhaps it is because he hears a different
drummer. Let him step to the music which he
hears, however measured or far away (934).
The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to
us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake.
There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a
morning star (939).
16
Lectures in American Literature Bill Shaw,
Professor of English, ret. Brazosport
College Lake Jackson, Texas Fall 2006
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