Skip to main content

Eric Butterworth on Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau’s Earth Based Religion

Hi Friends —

Mark Hicks
Sunday, July 28, 2024


Download MP3 file

Download PDF of this page


Eric Butterworth on Henry David Thoreau as a Great Teacher


43 Introduction to Thoreau

The following program is a recording of Eric Butterworth on great teachers and their relation to Unity. In this lesson, Eric will speak on Thoreau and Unity.

And citing Henry Thoreau as one who has had a great influence on my thinking. One who was a New England transcendentalist. He was a contemporary of Emerson. He was a very close friend of Emerson. He was a kind of a counterpart of Emerson in the sense that Emerson was deep and broad and very articulate and very intellectual, very persuasive and very much the platform speaker, and became at one time the most popular speaker in America going all over the land, giving his great thoughts on every subject.

On the other hand, Henry Thoreau was quiet, introspective, impractical, sort of a rebel. He was probably the first classic anti-establishment person. He probably in many ways would be considered the patron saint of the so-called hippies of today, but he is well known for many other things. He was the greatest influence upon the thinking of Gandhi who did so much for India. He was probably the great inspiration through Gandhi and directly through himself and Martin Luther King. But these were only small facets of the whole character and consciousness of Thoreau.

Thoreau in a way, is an enigma that defies explanation. He was no great scholar though he had a tremendous mind. He even renounced the educational system that trained him. He was no trained naturalist, and yet he was constantly involved with nature and probably knew more about the integrative aspect of nature to the wholeness of life than most naturalists.

He never went to church and as a matter of fact, he was considered an out-and-out atheist by most of the churchmen of his day, but we sense a deep spiritual oneness through all of his concepts. We find an undercurrent of love for his country. As a matter of fact, one time relative to elections, he said, “The fate of the country does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.” And this was something of the classic consciousness of Thoreau.

But despite his love for our country, he never voted and at one time he refused to pay taxes that he felt to be unjust. At this time, he wrote his essay on civil disobedience, which is probably better known throughout the world than it is in America, but it has been a Bible to many who have similarly followed the protest route. It was this concept of civil disobedience that was Gandhi’s inspiration and in our day inspired the freedom writers and their move for integration in the South.

Thoreau came from a very fine family. He was the last male descendant of a French ancestor who came to this country from the Isle of Guernsey. He was born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1817, graduated at Harvard University but without any literary distinction because he was always a literary rebel. He was an iconoclast in literature. He wrote for a newspaper for several years, but complained that they rarely published his stuff. He taught in a private school for a while, but he couldn’t accept the regimentation of thought and action.

One time he and Emerson were having a conversation and Emerson was quite elated about some of the progress in education. He said, “We now have a university that is teaching all the branches of the arts.” And Thoreau’s caustic reply was, “Yes, we teach all the branches but few of the roots.” And this was something of the concept of Thoreau. Always the radical as it were. He was brilliant of mind. There was no question about it. He could have been a great success in many fields if he had been so inclined, but he wasn’t. He might say, “But what do you mean by success? Saddling yourself with things, with burdens of conformity, with blinders to your own genius?”

His father was a very successful and very wealthy pencil manufacturer, and of course his father expected him to follow in the work, in his footsteps, and so he gave a brief fling to the work of pencil manufacturing. And while doing so, showing the ingenuity of his mind, he invented a new type of pencil that became an industry-wide innovation. But then he said, “Well, I’ve done that. What next?” So he turned his back on the business world. That was the end and never had any further relationship with it after that.

He was a profound thinker. He questioned everything and everyone and was painfully hard on himself. Emerson once called him, “The bachelor of thought and nature.” In the eyes of society’s standards, he might be called an ne’er-do-well, and I suppose probably would’ve today, even a kind of primitive beatnik. He never married. He lived alone. He ate no flesh. He drank no wine. He never used tobacco. He traveled little but traveled deeply through his beloved New England. He knew every stream, every bush, every tree, and had a naturalist instinct for animals and growing things.

44 The lasting impact of Walden

Then at the age of 28, he had his Walden experience. He retired to a cabin on the banks of Walden’s Pond near Concord, and he spent two years observing nature, looking deeply at himself and formulating his theory of life.

His book, Walden, is a chronicle of his life in the woods, which fostered his belief that as he puts it, “Most of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but a positive hindrance to the elevation of mankind.” Let me say that again. “Most of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but a positive hindrance to the elevation of mankind.” Walden is probably the one work that if you want to get a good insight of Thoreau, you will get and you can get it in paperback. There are a number of editions. The Signet edition is one, very inexpensive.

In The New Yorker in 1955, E.B. White, the outstanding critic said, “Walden is the only book I own, although there are some others unclaimed on my shelves. Every man I think reads one book in his life and this one is mine. It is not the best book I ever encountered, but it is for me the handiest and I keep it about me in much the same way that one carries a handkerchief: for relief in moments of despair.” This is one man’s thought of Thoreau, you see.

I have always found Thoreau, especially Walden, something that I need to reread once a year, just like house cleaning or going to a steam bath occasionally to get yourself cleansed out. It is a classic that I believe every person who is seriously involved in seeking to know himself, spiritually, should get involved in at least occasionally. You won’t agree with all he says, but he will challenge you and it’s kind of painfully.

Now, it’s rather strange that Thoreau is much more widely read and accepted as a philosopher throughout the world than he is in America. If go to any of the European scholars, any of the European schools of higher learning, and they will always if asked who are America’s greatest philosophers, they will always list Thoreau probably first, first or second. And yet he is not considered in that way in this country, which again, “The prophet is without honor in his own country.”

45 Living simply and deliberately

Now obviously we can’t all go to the woods and renounce the life of our times, and it probably would be unwise if we did. And the most primitive attempt at simple living would cost a great deal more than the $28 that Thoreau laid out for his little cabin near Walden Pond. But we can apply some of Thoreau’s precepts to weeding out the unessentials that clutter our own daily life to untangling our complexities of profession and education and ordinary living.

It was Thoreau in Walden who made the observation that, “The masses of men live lives of quiet desperation.” That was his blanket generalization of society that most people live lives of quiet desperation. Reduced to its simplest common denominator, Thoreau’s main thesis was simplify. Simplify. He said he kept his accounts on the nail of his thumb. He said, “I went to the woods because I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die to discover that I had not lived.”

It was a self-revealing wilderness experience, in other words. He says, “For many years I was the self-appointed inspector of snowstorms and rainstorms, and I did my duty faithfully. It is true, I never assisted the sun materially in his rising, but doubt not, it was of the last importance only to be present at it.”

I think Thoreau is an example of what happens to a person when he takes the time to experience the joys and the fruits of solitude, of contemplation, of meditation. Few of us do it enough, few of us have occasion or opportunity to do it to the extent that Thoreau did. Perhaps it is only in this way that we ever really get to know ourselves because we’re always so busy trying to see ourselves in relationship to things rather than just to see ourselves and to know God.

He said, “It is only by forgetting yourself that you draw near to God.” In other words, to get away from society’s degrees and titles and marks of prestige and all the symbols of our own ego involvement and actually face yourself and God in humility. In other words, this was “Jesus pray to the Father in secret and the Father who seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”

He says, “To be awake is to be alive. The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day is the awakening hour. Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our genius. All memorable events, I should say transpire in the morning time and in a morning atmosphere. To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. Morning is when I’m awake and there is a dawn in me. Morning is when I’m awake and there’s a dawn in me.”

46 Our hidden genius

It’s interesting that face-to-face with nature and with himself, any person comes to see that many of his excuses for failure are unfounded, and the man’s chief problem is actually that he stands in his own way. And Thoreau says, “As long as a man stands in his own way, everything seems to be in his way, governments, society, even the sun, moon and stars. Everything’s against him when he is against him himself.”

He says, “Whatever a man thinks of himself that it is which determines or rather, which indicates his fate.” This is this constant realization that as a man think of it himself, so is he. He says, “Misfortunes occur only when a man is false to his genius.” And of course, this reference to the genius is the divinity within, the Christ within, the real depth of the person. As all Transcendentalists, he had this conviction of the greatness of humanity, that every person is a great person, even if he doesn’t know it, even if he hasn’t discovered it or released it yet. Thoreau refers to it as his genius.

He says, “Events and circumstances have their origin in ourselves. They spring from seeds that we have sewn.” And certainly there is the law of consciousness as we so often refer to it. Thoreau had this great conviction you see of the Christ in man, the hidden genius in man. He says, “It is a pleasant fact that you will know no man long, however low in the social scale, however poor, miserable in temperate and worthless he may appear to be, a mere burden to society, but you will find at last that there is something which he understands and can do better than any other.”

And Thoreau you see had little patience with the systems of education and the whole systems of business which tended to regiment people and make them conform to certain standards and often go through life never really finding themselves or knowing themselves or knowing that’s something which they could do better than any other person. And that’s one of the great problems of our time. And the problem is not really being solved, you see, because as we have more and more people and life becomes more and more complex, we don’t really have time to allow the individual to find himself and to find what he can do better than any other.

47 Success according to Thoreau

And in a way, we get off on what Thoreau would call the wrong path because of our frantic desire to succeed. Today, everybody needs to succeed because we have a society that’s built upon the idea that the successful people are the ones who actually gain the great fruits of life. Everyone in our time has the desire to succeed, to be important, to get somewhere. We’re conditioned with this early on in our life. “You’ve got to get somewhere.” Children in school are told, “You’ve got to get the kind of skill that will enable you to make the money that will enable you to be the wise, strong and powerful person.” And we have advertisements on the radio that tell about how dropouts from school make far less money than those who continue in school. And all of this, of course, is supportive of a system which has its place you see, but Thoreau simply gives another voice.

He says, “Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises?” He says, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, maybe it’s because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple tree or an oak, shall he turn his spring into summer. If the condition of things which we were made for is not yet, what would any reality which we can substitute, we will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality. Shall we with pains erect a heaven of blue glass over ourselves, though when it is done, we shall be sure to gaze still at the true ethereal heaven, far above as if the former were not.”

See, he knew ahead of his time that something that many educators are now coming late to realize, that it is not always the right thing and seldom the right thing for young people, for instance, to graduate from high school and go right on to college before they really have discovered themselves. In other words, he says, “If the child is not yet ready to mature, then let him grow before you make him mature.” You see, and today it’s many educators are feeling that it’s the best thing in the world for a youngster to get out and be on his own for a couple of years, even if he’s tramping around the country or getting a job rather than to go right onto college because in that period, he’s going to begin to discover himself. And to discover that little something in himself, first of all, the music that he hears, which may be different, and find a way to step to that music, which then will enable him to make a creative contribution to life and to be creatively fulfilled in it.

But of course, this leads to individuality. It’s not easy to fulfill. It’s not easy for society to accept individuals because individuals are queer, they’re odd, and they’re a threat to everyone else, you see. We think of success in terms of wealth and possessions, and again, this is a part of our culture. I’m not saying it’s wrong. I don’t know that Thoreau said it’s wrong. He just said that there was another answer.

He says, “A man is rich in proportion to the things he can afford to let alone. He’s rich in proportion to the things he can let alone.” In other words, so often we tend to get on the treadmill of the quest for riches and become bound by possessions, by responsibilities. This was the story Jesus had in mind when He is talking to the rich young ruler who wanted to be a disciple. He had great possessions and Jesus said to him, “Go first and sell all your possessions and give it all to the poor and then come and follow me.” And the man turned sorrowfully away because he had great possessions. It’s always been my conviction that fits into the context of Jesus’ overall theory, a realization or philosophy that he was simply testing the man. He wasn’t saying that riches are wrong, but if you can’t give them up, then you need to give them up because you’re bound to them. It says, “He had rich possessions,” but actually possessions had him, you see. So therefore this was Thoreau’s thought, that you’re only really rich in proportion to the things that you can afford to let alone.

48 Goodness as the fulfilling of ones innate genius

He says, and this shows something of the naivety, the kind of whimsy, and yet the lovable character of this man who was so sincere in trying to find this inner relationship. He said, “Once I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still. So I threw them out the window in disgust.” Fanatical, of course, you see, totally impractical, unrealistic, but that’s Thoreau. And the exaggeration of that approach you see gives us somewhat of an insight of how we go the other extreme, how many of us are even possessed by intellectual things.

Possessed by books, and that’s me. And possessed of the fanatical desire to read books and to be a part of things which ultimately become a burden. I don’t know about you, but anytime I make a move, it requires 10 or 20 moving vans to carry me around because of my books. He says, “A truly great book teaches me better than to read it. I must lay it down and commence living on its hint. Why I began by reading, I must finish by acting.” So in the concept of Thoreau, you’d never read more than two lines and you close the book. Anything that excites you, then it’s time to get busy doing it. Otherwise, you’re just goading your mind with a lot of stuff, you see, that become possessions.

That’s the naive simplicity of Thoreau, but oh, it’s something that we need to look at. Maybe the greatest challenge to religion, the dogma and theology of the church is Thoreau’s very simple thought, “Be not merely good, but be good for something.” The church, you see, it always emphasized you got to be good. You come to church to be good, you got to be good and stop being evil and so forth. But he says it’s important, first of all, to be good for something. What is goodness? Certainly not an anemic, lukewarm sort of life that thinks constantly of moral right and wrong.

In the larger sense, goodness must mean the fulfilling of one’s own innate genius. Remember in revelations that beautiful statement, “Would thou wert either hot or cold, and because thou art neither hot nor cold, I will spew thee out of my mouth,” which would seem to emphasize that it’s far better in terms of individual growth to make an attempt and even do wrong, falling along the way than to never make the attempt. Thus become simply lukewarm, simply afraid to do any wrong, therefore never doing any good.

And of course, religion you see, is most ineffective if it deals with the day of miracles as something passed. Most of us, I’m sure have had that emphasis in our life of the day when God walked the earth, the day of miracles, all this was something of the past. He says, “It is strange that men will talk of miracles, revelations, inspiration, and the like as things passed while love remains. This is the great miracle, the miracle of love, and there’s nothing past about love, you see.

He says, “The only way to speak the truth is to speak lovingly,” and that’s a hard one to live with. The only way to speak the truth is to speak lovingly. So often we get into arguments about truth and we become defensive and resentful and bitter when asserting what we think to be the truth. And yet someone doesn’t accept it or rejects it.

Like a man used to come to see me, and he had this great transcendent feeling, whatever you call it, that he himself lived on various levels of consciousness and in some of his inner moments, he spoke to the great masters of all the ages. And I never questioned this at all, you see. But we used to talk about it and talk about the value of this type of contact and so forth. And if anyone didn’t accept him instantly as a person of great depth because he had these experiences with the masters, he’d lose his temper and get angry as, “Oh, get out.” Just fume and fuss and fret, you see, thus actually negating the worth of the whole thing. The only way to speak the truth is to speak lovingly. And the moment we stop speaking lovingly then we might as well forget the truth, you see, because it’s only intellectual.

49 Seeing the oneness of life

One of Thoreau’s greatest contributions was the evidence that in solitude, in self-discipline and self reverence, he came to a deep transcendent mystic awareness of the underlying reality of things. He suddenly began for the first time to see. You remember, Job after that long experience of travail said, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye seeth thee?” Suddenly I become to see. Thoreau says, and this is a simple little poetic couplet, “I hearing yet who had but ears and sight who had but eyes before. Moments live, who lived but ears and truth discern who knew but learnings lore. I hear beyond the range of sound, I see beyond the range of sight, new earths and skies and seas around, and in my day, the sun doth pale his light.”

Suddenly you see his eyes were open, the scales fell away from his eyes. This is the thing that represents the great, lofty, beautiful goal for all of us, and perhaps some never find it. As one poet says that, “The great tragedy of life is that some people die with all their music in them.” Some people never really open their eyes to see, to really see, to really hear, to hear the voices of wisdom, to really live the life and discern the truth. But Thoreau always related, the deep concepts that came to him in terms of the very practical things of nature and of human relations. We talk so often of the importance of finding an insight in the truth that will enable us to overcome tension and stress and strain and worry, which is so much a part of life.

Thoreau taught one of the most beautiful lessons I’ve ever heard in this need for overcoming pressures of life by describing a little flower. He said, “I saw a delicate flower had grown up two feet high between the horse’s feet and the wheel track. An inch more to the right or left had sealed its fate or an inch higher, and yet it lived to flourish and never knew the danger it incurred. It didn’t borrow trouble or invite an evil fate by apprehending it.” In other words, he’s talking about the fact that the little flower is a part of a creative process of life, and obviously this is why Jesus would say, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin,” not worried about what it has or what it hasn’t got.

It’s simply as Little Orphan Annie once said, “Doing its stuff, just doing its stuff.” Remember the time when Orphan Annie in the funny paper is talking to her little dog, Zero, and they’re looking down in the gutter. She was always a woe begotten creature, and they’re standing there and this little bitty flower is in the gutter and it’s been run over by cars and so forth. And she says, “Look at it, Zero. There’s that little flower stepped on and mud spattered, and yet it keeps on doing its stuff,” simply expressing its innate beauty, you see. Takes a Thoreau to sense this and to see the relationship of this kind of nature’s oneness to man’s need to feel one through his inner self, through the genius of himself with life.

50 We live but a fraction of our lives

In his travels, Thoreau was deeply interested in living along the way. He said, “We live but a fraction of our lives.” After his experience in the woods, he looked back and he noted how easily we fall into patterns and we fall into ruts because he saw himself doing the same thing, you see. And he said, “I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond side. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men. And so with the paths which the mind travels, how worn and duty then must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity.”

This reminds me of that poem by Sam Walter Foss called The Calf Path, which is a classic bit of a poetic philosophy, and he talks about how a calf in an early primitive farm wandered from the farmhouse out to the pasture and back to the farmhouse, and how he wore this little winding path over the side of the hill and down the dale the other side of the farm. And how gradually every day that calf path became much more of a rut, much more impressed on the earth, and eventually all the cattle were following it. And then gradually the farmer himself built a lane along that calf path. And then he shows how as civilization sprung up there, eventually that calf path became main street of the town and there was no rhyme or reason for all the turns and the movements of the way in which civilization was going, except that once a calf wended his way out to pasture, the tendency to follow the ruts, the patterns, watch yourself.

This is what Thoreau was doing. Look at himself even out in the wilderness, how he followed the same path going down to the water. Watch yourself from day to day and how you maybe get up at the same time, drink the coffee made the same way, and you have two prunes instead of three, and your eggs are cooked at exactly the same way, and you leave and catch the subway at a certain time and walk the same side of the street, pick up the same newspaper, read the same columnists, go to work, do the same sort of things day after day after day.

Why? Thoreau was the kind who would ask. “Why? Why am I doing this?” Usually our only defense is that because that’s the way we do it. That’s the way we’ve always done it. And when you go to school or go to an office or get into any sort of establishment, there are always those around who will quickly orient you to the way we do things here. And so society keeps on moving down the same old path, and ultimately, why do we do them that way? Because that’s the way we do them.

So it takes a Thoreau, you see, not from the standpoint that we need to discard all these things or destroy all the systems, but to look at them and really discover why it is that we do them. And if it’s not necessary that we walk down the same street, maybe we should walk down another street occasionally, perhaps there’s something beautiful on that street that we’ve never seen. That’s what Thoreau is saying.

51 Living with the license of a higher order of beings

And he says, and this is one of Thoreau’s great ideas, and it has such beautiful application to one’s own quest for truth. He said, “I learned this at least by my experiment. That if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary, new universal and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him or the old laws be expanded and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.”

Now that’s the direction we’re all trying to follow in our quest for truth. This you’ll find in some of the closing lines of the book, Walden. By all means read Walden, Thoreau’s Walden. “That we will come to live with the license of a higher order of beings.” Dream widely, in other words, and work to make the dream real. You pass the invisible boundaries of can’t be done, too old, too young, too weak, too tired, too little money, too little education, pass all of those boundaries.

And even though it’s said that it’s impossible for you to do this thing or to fulfill this particular goal, new laws of the spirit will seem to become operative or new revelations of the old in the same way for instance, as since Thoreau’s time when it was impossible for heavier than air things to fly. By certain laws that certainly justified such a statement, we discovered new laws, the laws of aerodynamics, you see, which in a sense nullified the old and enabled us to live with the license of a higher order of being. So this is the whole process you see of growth and unfoldment.

52 The eternity of life and reincarnation

Thoreau also, as we keep pointing out, as is true of all the Transcendentalists, Thoreau had this concept of the eternity of life, which could not otherwise then find room for a reincarnation. This is strange. We find this again in all those who have caught this transcendentalist concept of life, the belief that life just couldn’t begin or end in this little experience that we call life.

He says, “Why should we be startled of death? Life is a constant putting off of the mortal coil, coat, cuticle, flesh and bones and all the old clothes.” And he says, “As far back as I can remember, I have unconsciously referred to the experience of a previous state of existence.”

He wrote a lot of things about the whole concept of reincarnation, a lot of experiences. Wrote several little fantasies and stories and so forth. So he was one of the certainly more convinced of Transcendentalists relative to this idea of reincarnation.

53 Vegetarianism

Another interesting thing, interesting just as an observation, a lot of young people today have gotten interested in the vegetarian diet and it’s become sort of a fad among some young people and a lot of more mature people are beginning to take another look at the whole idea, though there are still those who say, “You can’t live without eating meat,” and so forth.

Thoreau came to vegetarianism as a result of his experience with nature, as a result of seeing what went on inside of himself. You see, in other words, when he went out to Walden, he decided to live right off the land with little exception, and he points out that one very quickly questions his values of eating meat if he has to actually go out and snare the rabbit himself or kill the lamb, you see. And he finds it’s very difficult to do.

He says, “Is it not a reproach that man is a carnivorous animal? True he can and does live in a great measure by preying on other animals, but this is a miserable way as anyone who will go to snaring rabbits or slaughtering lambs may learn. And he will be regarded as a benefactor of his race, who shall teach man to confine himself to a more innocent and wholesome diet. Whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race in its gradual improvement to leave off eating animals as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.”

That’s a pretty shocking concept of course, to many who have never seriously considered the idea of vegetarianism. But it’s a rather strange thing that people who spend a great deal of time living close to nature very quickly gain a sense of respect as did Schweitzer, you see, a reverence for life and an inability, a total inability, incapacity to destroy life of any kind. This again is just another facet of Thoreau.

It’s rather interesting in passing, and I’m sure many of you know this, that Charles Fillmore was a tremendous convicted vegetarian. As a matter of fact, in the early years of the movement, Unity was considered a fanatical vegetarian movement because it was more or less related to this aspect of Fillmore’s personal practice. And as the years went by, he felt that it was certainly not right and not in keeping with the whole quest for truth to tell people, first of all, you become a vegetarian and then you study truth, you see. He believed it, he believed that one could not actually develop spiritual consciousness as long as he was taking flesh into his body. That was Charles Fillmore’s concept, and that was not his alone. This is true of a lot of the Eastern religious people.

But in the early years, all Unity students were vegetarians. I grew up as a vegetarian. I never had meat in my mouth until I was in the army. That’s a confession, isn’t it? Because I’ve talked to a lot of doctors who say it’s absolutely impossible for anybody to live all the years of his life without meat and not be a deficient physical creature. Well, I say, “Well, then I’m deficient because I never had meat in my mouth in all the years of my life.” When I got in the army, I started eating meat. It was a matter of survival. Since that time, I consider myself a vegetarian hypocrite because at heart, I still believe this, I still feel it, and I still have this tremendous thing about destroying life. But on the other hand, I’ve sort of made my peace with the whole thing because I don’t like to be a faddist. But this again, was a thought of Thoreau, which he held very, very strongly.

54 Thoreau from the perspective of Emerson

Thoreau had this tremendous innate sense of reverence for the person and for the need of every person to have an uncluttered mind and to allow nothing to stand in the way of his own quest for truth. Nothing. To insist that he cut himself away from things and from ego hangups and so forth, so that he could really get to know himself and really express the deep spirit of truth, which is his own.

Emerson, who I said was a contemporary of Thoreau and who actually had tremendous admiration for Thoreau. As a matter of fact, I feel that Emerson felt about Thoreau like so often a parent does about a child. He may criticize him, he may constantly push him and pull him and scrub him and so forth and dress him. But in his heart, he hopes that the child will be what he himself has never really been.

And Thoreau had this great admiration, or Emerson had this great admiration for Thoreau because Emerson knew that in spite of all his naivety and his impracticality and his idealism, that Thoreau was out there putting into practice what Emerson was talking about. And he knew this. And he said somewhat in despair that had ... Talking of Thoreau,

“Had his genius been only contemplative, he had been fitted to his life. But with his energy and practical ability, he seemed born for great enterprises and for command. And so I much regret the loss of his rare powers of action, that I cannot help counting at a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of the Huckleberry Party. Pounding beans is good to the end of pounding empires one of these days, but if at the end of years it is still only beans.”

You see this is Emerson and his intellectual mind still questioning the validity you see of a man’s who’s devoting himself to introspection. It’s like today, the parent talking to the child who’s involved in a quest for insights into a whole new idea of religion. Maybe he’s involved in meditation or in trying to find himself in other ways, and papa will usually say, “Where is it getting you? What do you want to get out of life?” And this sort of thing. And usually the child will come back, “Well, where you want to go in life? What’s life all about then? Is it just making money and harnessing yourself to the factory wheel?” You see? So this was the difference as it were between Emerson and Thoreau.

During the Mexican-American war, Thoreau at this time had this tremendous rebellion toward the government in the same way a lot of young people have today. He felt that we were imposing our will on another foreign country. It was a great parallel to our modern Vietnamese situation, and it hasn’t achieved as much attention historically and probably won’t because it wasn’t quite the extent of the military involvement that we have today, and especially the tremendous saturation bombing and ecological destruction and so forth.

But he had this strong feeling about it, and to the extent that he constantly spoke out about it, and at one time was thrown in jail for his views, or I think actually he was thrown in jail because he refused to pay taxes to a government that was supporting this war. So he’s sitting in jail, and I think he only spent 24 hours in jail because he was from a prominent family, and his offense wasn’t the kind of thing that at that time had been too widespread. But he spent about 24 hours in jail. While he is in jail, his friend, who was his friend, Emerson, this great, beautiful, wonderful man, the great articulate voice of America in those days, came over to see him. And so Emerson stood on the outside looking in the window, and here’s Thoreau looking out the window of this little jail. And Emerson said, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” And Thoreau looked him right in the eyes and said, “Mr. Emerson, what are you doing out there?” In other words, with all his convictions and all his ideals, you see, he felt that if he was sincere, he should be in jail too.

But instead, Emerson, of course, was going around the country, the great figure speaking these great truths. And I’m not saying it’s belittling of Emerson because I say he’s my favorite guru, but Thoreau was the kind of the agnostic, the iconoclast, the disturber as it were, of settled things. And probably Thoreau had more of an impact on Emerson then Emerson did on Thoreau, because I’m sure it challenged Emerson’s thinking very painfully, and he’s had that kind of influence on me. But you see, as Emerson feels very discouraged about Thoreau, this genius, this tremendous mind going to pot, sitting out there simply counting the fish in a stream, it would seem that his life was being wasted in terms of getting things done, as many of us of my generation, myself included, look at our young folks and often say, “They’re just wasting their lives.”

55 Thoreau from the perspective of today

But as we view the life of Thoreau these many years later, we find that his experiment and his observation of Walden were indispensable to the clear thought of mankind. We had to have a Thoreau, we had to have a “Walden experience.” Probably in terms of man’s ultimate unfoldment, the two years that Thoreau spent at Walden was as important as the explosion of Alamogordo, New Mexico when we first released atomic energy, even if we think of it in its most positive aspects of the ultimate benefit to mankind of nuclear energy.

Certainly Thoreau could have been a successful pencil manufacturer. Today, his ancestors might be reaping the harvest of a great corporation. We could have today had TV ads, Thoreau’s pens and pencils supporting baseball games and fights and a lot of other things. He might’ve been an engineer. He might’ve been a builder or a statesman or an educator. He might’ve done great things in his day. He had the mind for it. He had the skill, the genius for it.

But who can say today that what he was and what he did was not the best way to bring a meaningful impact upon civilization? One thing is sure. Thoreau always did the step to the music that he heard, even if it was a beat that no one else was interested in. When he was a youngster, someone once asked Thoreau what he was going to be when he grew up. And showing something of this same character and consciousness that he reflected so beautifully later, he looked up at this adult and with kind of sadness in his eyes, answered the question, “What do you be when you grow up?” “I’ll be I.

I’ll be I.” Doesn’t make a difference whether I’m 2 or 20 or 9 or 90. I’ll still be this person. Perhaps today we can better understand ourselves and better really find the pathway of truth because of the tiny pin pricks of light which often became brilliant rays that emanated through the mind of the pen of Henry Thoreau.