Henry David Thoreau and the Concept of Natural Law in Walden

This is a paper I wrote for my eco-criticism class.  It explores the idea of Natural Law which can be summarized as your individual conscience.  Enjoy

What drove Henry David Thoreau into the woods to write Walden?  Was it a search for his own identity?  Or maybe to lose it.  Perhaps it was a profound frustration with the lack of autonomy imposed on him by his culture and government.  Maybe it was nothing more than a desire to live simply and write.  These are speculative questions and we will never know Thoreau’s impulse for seeking a sanctuary in nature.  But we can make certain suppositions about Thoreau through a careful analysis of his writing.
Walden is quite unlike many other books, and does not fit a particular genre easily.  Environmental writing?  Subsistence living instructional guide?  Memoirs?  Cultural criticism?  Nature worship?  Indeed a basic reading of Walden will reveal that all of these elements appear.  We can only imagine the initial public reaction to a book like this – and we may assume that it was generally misunderstood.  Indeed, perhaps I’m doing nothing but furthering the misunderstanding of Walden as I write at present.  But one must study the book for themselves before making such judgements.  Thoreau appears to make very few judgements in his writing.  He is an observer, and the language itself is a naturally occurring process for him.  It seems as though there is no forced perception in his writing.  Events occur; and he documents them.  He does not espouse any particular ideologies.  In fact he spends some time debunking a number of them!
I would like to propose that Thoreau falls into a category of ancient, recent and current writers and story tellers who are compelled to glorify, study, and commune with nature.  Nature has always been a source of inspiration for artists and philosophers.  But how “one-sided” has this relationship of writer to nature been?  Is it possible for the open mind and heart of the writer to be subservient to nature?  I’m arguing that there is a “natural law” that has guided certain writers like Thoreau throughout our historical record.  Natural law is that guiding intelligence which seems to be at work in the evolution of life with an eventual terminus in a teleological sense.  This natural law existed long before homo sapien sapiens evolved, and it will continue long after humanity goes extinct.  Natural law can be considered to include all of the natural and physical sciences, and it should also be understood as our conscience.  If our moral sense is governed by a natural law, in order for our lives to be aligned to it, our morals must be cultivated and cherished.  Thoreau provides us with an excellent guide to this cultivation and celebration of morals in Walden.
The Christian tradition has told humanity to believe that they were given dominion over nature – a gift given by God – but writers like Thoreau can show us that this “dominion” is a harmful myth that distorts the relationship between humanity and nature.  Natural law can tell us that this relationship should be respected at all costs.  But this doesn’t mean only a respect to our environment, this also means a respect for the basic dignity of all life.  Consider this quote from Walden as Thoreau is reflecting on his bean field and work at keeping the weeds under control:  “But what right had I to oust johnswort and the rest, and break up their ancient herb garden?”  (pp 101)  This respect for the rights of plants is a complete negation of the biblical premise of dominion.  What’s more is that Thoreau was certainly right for not expelling the johnswort, since its medicinal properties do the work of anti-depressants.
As I write, in 2011, humanity is experiencing the greatest levels of economic inequality of all time.  At the same time, our environment is being poisoned, exploited and neglected.  These are two symptoms of a sick society, and for them to have progressed to the point that we have – it is clear that natural law has been largely ignored or not taken seriously for the better part of the last 500 years.
How have writers like Thoreau guided us towards a strict adherence to natural law?  Like any other kind of law, natural law is a principle discovered through the constructive and creative use of language.  It has remained flexible and illusive enough to be universally translatable and relevant to every culture.  In Thoreau’s discussion of reading the classics like Homer and Aeschylus, he suggests a similar trope: “For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man.  They are the only oracles which are not decayed and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave.  We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old.” (pp 65-66)

What then is natural law? The definition that I consider most helpful is very simple:  Respect your environment at all times, and follow the Golden Rule.  Adhering to these two guidelines will settle the relationship to our environment, and we will be able to work towards a balance and harmony with nature.  Here is an example of Thoreau’s respect for the environment:  “Near the end of May, the sand-cherry (reasus pumila,) adorned the sides of the path with its delicate flowers arranged in umbels cylindrically about its short stems, which last, in the fall, weighed down with good sized and handsome cherries, fell over in wreaths like rays on every side.  I tasted them out of compliment to Nature, though they were scarcely palatable.”  (pp 74)  This act of tasting is a trusting fearlessness that Thoreau exhibits concerning his environment.  But it is also a gesture of gratitude to claim that he tasted the cherry out of “compliment to Nature.”  This is a profound respect for his environment.  Imagine the consequences of the majority of humanity holding nature in such esteem!

And if everyone on earth were to begin strictly following the Golden Rule then we would usher in an era of world peace and see the trust and vibrancy return to our personal relationships and communities.  If the Golden Rule were followed, we would be able to quickly identify the self-destructive people amongst us because they would be the ones to first do harm to others.  This is self-destructive because violence is always reflected back at the perpetrator.  It then becomes cyclical and, some would argue, morally permissible; or at least justifiable.  To make this argument enables a self-destructive culture to maintain its status quo.

Such self-destruction has often been argued as simply an element of human nature and thus of nature itself.  And while it is true that there is a violence inherent to the creativity of nature, the necessity of that violence is only truly realized during the birth process.  Thoreau’s ethical stance against violence was his refusal to participate in the system.  He consciously chose nonviolence (by not paying taxes)  against the American government concerning the imperialist expansion of the Mexican – American War (1846-1848).  Walden was published in 1854 and the reflections and thought processes that it contains are a helpful way of getting a grip on how powerfully nature holds us all together.  Natural law is a binding law.

While Thoreau does not speak explicitly about any sort of natural law, he does have a chapter concerning “higher laws.”  My understanding of this chapter is that it was mostly about food sources.  So for Thoreau, the highest law is the law of survival, or to frame it less drastically:  Life!  Subsistence is, of course, every living thing’s daily requirement.  For humans, this makes us deeply predatory and quite frankly the most invasive and environmentally destructive species the world has ever known.  Thoreau remarks about the destructive impulses of humanity:  “I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both.  I love the wild not less than the good.”  (pp 136)

Why does Thoreau embrace his savage and destructive side?  Perhaps it is purely out of his own survival instinct.  But his embrace of both spiritual and savage also indicates another consistent trait of Thoreau; and that is his sense of balance.  For Thoreau, the only way to live life is to respect the balance of nature.  It may be helpful to observe that one of the symbols for justice in our court system is a set of scales – only when the scales are in balance can justice be served.  It is then worth asking:  What or who is on the scales to throw them off balance?  In our contemporary period, it appears to be obvious that the global population of humans is out of balance with the sustainability requirements of nature.  This is a Malthusian claim to a certain extent, but humanity is currently on a population growth curve of exponential proportions.  If our population continues to grow and we remain rampant consumers, then there will be a point in the future where a scenario such as the film Children Of Men could plausibly play out.

It should be clear that our current and continuing ecological crisis was brought on and is perpetuated by our own daily actions.  Thoreau can tell us a great deal about sustainable living and what the requirements are.  As you might imagine, the necessary steps to become sustainable begin with each of our own personal choices about what we do to, and with, our bodies.  Thoreau propounds the cliche of our bodies as temples:  “Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead.  We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones.  Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man’s features, and meanness or sensuality to imbrute them.”  (pp 144)

Thoreau seems to be implying that we are our own gods and goddesses.  This is in line with natural law.  Natural law requires respect for the divinity of all of life.  This sounds like a form of pantheism or panentheism which the Christian church has historically declared heretical.  But the same church believes in a concept such as the Holy Spirit, and/or the omnipresence of God.  It seems to me that the premise of pantheism, and an omnipresent spirit of God are simply different names for the same phenomenon of life.  If there truly is any sort of intelligent designer guiding the course of the universe, then it would seem to be operating under the guise of evolution and would also seem to be constrained by the principles of physics.  Yet Thoreau’s reverence for life is an exhibition of spirituality that we can all share and appreciate, which means that the sacred ties of nature are nothing to scoff at.

“Sacredness” is of course simply a human concept that would be inexplicable and probably incomprehensible without the tools of language and abstraction.  Surely plants and animals have no concept of the sacred other than their own desire to live life and play their part in the ecosystem.  Language enables us to privilege certain things or ideas, whereas a plant would only privilege direct access to sunlight.  Language, then, is also a tool of natural law and quite possibly the most overlooked sacrament that humans hold on to.  Thoreau said it this way:  “A written word is the choicest of relics.  It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art.  It is the work of art nearest to life itself.  It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips; – not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of breath itself.  The symbol of an ancient man’s thought becomes a modern man’s speech.”  (pp 67)
Language is dynamic and in many ways chameleonic.  Language is possibly the most quickly adaptable trait of the human species.  It becomes what it needs to be in the moment.  It can be used to speak indisputable truths one minute, and the next let loose the foulest lies.  Natural law will always privilege the true words.
In the chapter entitled “Sounds,” Thoreau spends a bit of time reflecting on the bell music (tintinnabulation) he hears from the nearby church.  “Sometimes, on Sundays, I heard the bells, the Lincoln, Acton, Bedford, or Concord bell, when the wind was favorable, a faint, sweet, and, as it were, natural melody, worth importing into the wilderness.”  (pp 80)  The phrase “natural melody” strikes me particularly important since I am a musician.  According to physics, all of existence is comprised of waves/particles.  Many of these are waves are audible in the form of sound, of which music seems to be the most emotionally gratifying form to humans.  It remains a mystery as to why people prefer the sound of music to the sound of jack hammers, but Thoreau seemed to know that certain melodies simply belong out there in the air.
This awareness of sounds that Thoreau describes can take us a long way in arriving at conclusions about natural law.  Moral decisions always happen “in the moment” as it were.  So sounds are perhaps the most “tangible” things for us to grasp onto to make us aware of the moment.  A natural melody surely has all the information contained within it to awaken us to the truths of our moments.  And while sound is clearly not a “tangible” thing in the traditional sense of the word, it is always present to us in all of our surroundings.  Thoreau seems to place truth in the fringes:  “Men esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star, before Adam and after the last man.  In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime.  But all these times and places and occasions are now and here.  God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages.”  (pp 63)  Thoreau is working against a traditional definition of God in this passage.  He chooses to limit the reality of God to the limitless potential of the moment.

To follow natural law is to follow one’s individual conscience.  It is the opinion of this writer that our individual consciences are part of a collective consciousness that includes all the energy of life.  Becoming aware of (and thus valuing) this collective consciousness demands that close attention be paid to one’s conscience, so too, natural law.  Thoreau extols the open mind that pursues this path:  “Follow your genius closely enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every hour.”  (pp 73.)

One comment on “Henry David Thoreau and the Concept of Natural Law in Walden

  1. Chas says:

    Great Job.

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