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Henry David Thoreau and the New Model of the Human Being

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Title: Henry David Thoreau and the New Model of the Human Being


1
Henry David Thoreauand theNew Model of the
Human Being
  • Michael Forest
  • Visiting Fulbright Lecturer
  • Beijing Foreign Studies University

2
Michael Forest
  • Visiting Fulbright Lecturer 2014-2015
  • Beijing Foreign Studies Univ.
  • Associate Professor Chair
  • Canisius College
  • Buffalo NY USA

3
Structure of the Presentation
  • Henry David Thoreau
  • Environmental Concerns Today
  • A Theory of Civilization Collapse
  • Growth and Increase
  • Thoreau Redux Future Primitives

4
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
  • A key figure in American nature writing and
    environmentalism. Thoreau is foremost a moralist.
  • Key texts are
  • Civil Disobedience (1849)
  • Walden (1854)
  • Walking (1862)

5
Thoreau Chronology
  • 1817 born in Concord, MA
  • 1833 attends Harvard College
  • 1837 graduates, meets Emerson, begins journal
  • 1841 moves into Emersons house for 2 years
  • 1842 brother dies writes A Natural History of
  • Massachusetts
  • 1845 moves to Walden Pond, July 4
  • 1846 arrested jailed trip to climb Mt.
    Katahdin
  • 1847 leaves Walden Pond
  • 1849 publishes A Week on the Concord and
    Merrimack
  • Rivers
  • 1854 publishes Walden
  • 1862 dies May 6 age 44 Essays published
    posthumously

6
Opening Sentence of Walden
  • 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.

7
Critique of Progress
  • Certainly in Economy, Thoreau critiques material
    acquisition, what we today would call
    consumerism.
  • He casts the whole chapter in ironic economic
    language.
  • Most pointedly, he gauges all expenses by costs
    and the cost of a thing is the amount of what
    I will call life which is required to be
    exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run
    (p. 26).

8
Consumerism
  • What is the nature of the luxury which enervates
    and destroys nations? (Walden)
  • Critique of Consumer Debt
  • Critique of Status esp. clothing
  • The Virtue of Simplicity

9
The Retreat of the Hero
  • After a brief opening, the first large section of
    Economy is a castigation of his fellow citizens.
    In effect, it is a harsh assessment of the
    contemporary American life.
  • Immediately after that, Thoreau retreats into the
    woods to heal himself. His experiment is a
    re-grounding in the source of life the natural
    world and its life-giving spirituality.
  • In effect, his cabin in the woods is a retreat
    that provides his needed time to recover his
    power before he returns to town.

10
Thoreau as Neophyte Naturalist
  • One of the interesting features of Thoreau as a
    naturalist is that he had no formal or family
    training.
  • His education was a classical education
    languages, poetry, philosophy, literature.
  • His family did not farm or work in the natural
    environment. His father was a shopkeeper and had
    a small pencil factory.
  • Thoreau learned to identify and cultivate the
    plants, locate fish and animals and gauge the
    seasons by self-training through books,
    conversations, journaling and many long walks.

11
Thoreau on Primitive Peoples of the Tierra del
Fuego
  • Is it impossible to combine the hardiness of
    these savages with the intellectualness of the
    civilized man?
  • Henry David Thoreau, Walden

12
Thoreau on Savage in The Maine Woods
  • Thoreau gave the derivation of savage
  • Latin slyva meant woods
  • selvaggia meant woods-person
  • Old French/Middle English salvage meant
    woods
  • sauvage meant
    "woods-person"
  • Source Robert F. Sayre, Thoreau and the American
    Indian (Princeton Princeton University Press,
    1977) p. 8.

13
Thoreau on Primitivism
  • Thoreau uses primitive societies or sometimes
    the idea of primitive societies as a critique
    of his own societys excesses.
  • Thoreau especially valorized, sometimes as a
    stereotype, the Native Americans whom he read
    about and met.

14
Thoreaus Environmental Concerns
  • Thoreaus concerns were slightly different than
    ours
  • A concern for the moral health of individuals
  • A concern for the moral health of societies
  • A concern for the use of nature as mere resource
    to be exploited.
  • Thoreau presents a virtue based position.

15
Current Environmental Concerns
  • Our concerns are larger in scale. We are
    concerned not only for the moral health but also
    the biological health of individuals and
    societies.
  • Increasing Population Increasing Consumption
  • Freshwater shortages, ocean acidification, global
    climate change, biodiversity loss, air quality,
    etc.

16
A Theory of Civilization Collapse
  • Environmental Degradation as a Key Factor in
    Civilization Collapse.
  • Example Ancient Sumer
  • Source Clive Ponting, A New Green History of the
    World The Environment and the Collapse of Great
    Civilizations. Rev. Edit. Penguin 2007 pp.
    36-86.

Artist Rendering Sacred Precinct of Nanna in
UrArtwork by Balage Balogh, Archaeologyillustrat
ed.com 
17
The Human Defined as a Member of Civilization
  • Aristotle civilization is the true nature of
    humans
  • Thomas Hobbes and the state of nature
    continual fear and danger of violent death, and
    the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish,
    and short.

18
Key Features of Hobbess Reduction
  • Reduction of pre-civilized life to bestial terms
  • Reduction to the antithesis of all that is hoped
    for in civilized life
  • It necessarily involves insufficient resources
  • (4) His view that it is constant warfare.
  • Each one of these points is rejected by
    contemporary anthropological studies on primitive
    peoples.

19
The Future Primitive
  • A term from at least the 1990s used to signal a
    future (hoped) return to the hunter-gatherer
    lifestyle.
  • The Future Primitive ideal is generally an
    anti-civilization movement, arguing that
    civilized humans are more dangerous and barbaric
    to the earth than the ecologically sustainable
    hunter-gatherers.

20
Re-Wilding
  • Rewilding is a conservation term introduced in
    the 1990s to promote large scale conservation in
    North America including the re-introduction of
    large predators.
  • Rewilding seeks to connect fragmented natural
    areas and return them to wilderness in a
    scientifically credible manner.

Re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park
in 1995 after 70 years.
21
Pleistocene Rewilding
22
Re-Wilding Human Beings
  • Humans were slowly domesticated. Our bodies
    changed since domestication another word for
    civilization and we overshot our ecological
    capacity.
  • Returning to simpler forms of life, foraging for
    foods, and slowly reducing overpopulations as
    humans re-integrate into the natural environment
    are main goals of human rewilding.

23
The Return of the Hero
  • In part, this development of ideas in
    conservation, rewilding, and the future primitive
    are all pre-figured in Thoreau.
  • Thoreau returns from the woods to report that an
    educated person can re-wild themselves. Thoreau
    advocates the simplicity of a primitivist style
    of life and seeks to advocate the integration of
    primitivism back into American society.

24
The Future Primitive
  • Is it impossible to combine the hardiness of
    these savages with the intellectualness of the
    civilized man? (p. 13).
  • The answer is no, it is not impossible to combine
    these two qualities, since Thoreau is that
    person.
  • The key to his rewilding is that Thoreau was
    not a naturalist. He was a bookish son of a local
    small business man. He learned to integrate
    himself into nature.

25
Conclusion Future Primitives
  • Thoreau, writing for his own time and generation,
    anticipated contemporary proposals and advanced
    himself and his book as an image of the new human
    being.
  • The West of which I speak is but another name
    for the Wild and what I have been preparing to
    say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of
    the World (from Walking 1863).
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