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Civil Disobedience and Other Essays

by Henry David Thoreau

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Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in his journal, had this to say about his protégé, Henry David Thoreau: “Thoreau wants ambition in his mixture. Fault of this, instead of being the head of American engineers, he is captain of a huckleberry party.” Not a bad epitaph!

The fact is, if Thoreau had listened to Emerson more he would have turned out be a blowhard like Emerson. While it’s true that you should forever associate these two authors in your mind because of their friendship, you should never confuse them. Emerson took his pantheistic worldview far more seriously, and as a consequence his writing grew more and more ponderous. Today, anyone who briefly encounters Emerson knows that his voice is nineteenth century, because his “new” ideas in response to the Enlightenment are hopelessly outdated.

Thoreau, by contrast, still sounds fresh—there are many ways, even now, in which our world must catch up to him. Like Emerson, he held to a silly romantic pantheism, but he didn’t let if affect much of what he thought or wrote. He sounds silly when he speaks directly about his theology, as he does here: “The oldest Egyptian or Hindu philosopher raised a corner of the veil from the statue of the divinity; and still the trembling robe remains raised, and I gaze upon as fresh a glory as he did, since it was I in him that was then so bold, and it is he in me that now reviews the vision.” But the rest of Thoreau’s thought is so saturated by Christian influences that it’s hard to believe he didn’t know Christ.

Three of the most obvious themes in Thoreau rest on Christian foundations: (1) the incredible beauty of nature, manifest in even the smallest, most common things; (2) busy-ness as the enemy of the good life, because it stifles the reflection necessary to be truly moral; and (3) the importance of pursuing the true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable by reading great books.

To take just the last example—I could quote Thoreau all day, but two excerpts will have to suffice—this is Thoreau on reading:

“To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”

“Read the best books first, or you may never have a chance to read them.”

That’s good advice—far better than you would receive from the “head of American engineers.”

by Jeff Baldwin