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Celebrating Thoreau’s 200 Birth Anniversary

Henry David ThoreauTo honor Henry David Thoreau, the great American writer and thinker of the 19th century, for his 200th birthday year, we will be sharing excerpts from Thoreau’s Quest: Mysticism in the Life and Writings of Henry David Thoreau by Paul Hourihan. The first is the following:

MAN THE UNKNOWN: Thoreau’s View

The theme of Man the Unknown engages Thoreau, reflecting the Romantic and Transcendentalist preoccupation: Do we really know what man is? The man we received from our ancestors, from our religions, cultural and intellectual traditions—this is not man as he truly is. Thoreau vigorously espoused a new concept:

“But man’s capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little has been tried.”*

We have simply taken things as nature has given them to us and called that human nature. So little has been tried. Thoreau wants to forge other roads into the psyche, to explore new territories for humanity, and then give us a report of what he has found—setting out on his mission without any encouragement. Emerson gave him land for the hut but nothing more.

“The greater part of what my neighbors call good, I believe in my soul to be bad—”* summarizes the pervading mood of these pages. “How vigilant we are! Determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it…. denying the possibility of change.”* He wants to remake himself and then announce to the world what a man can do….

Near the end of the last chapter Thoreau asks his readers to discover the true problems that have concerned mankind—not what is going on in other countries, but in your own. Those who are absorbed by the question of Africa or the Mississippi or the Northwest passage, attend to those things and it will be good for them. But those who have sighted the inner continent should turn to that with equal vigor. He writes about recognizing your own streams and oceans, exploring your own higher latitudes.

“Nay, be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought”**—the thought not of the intellect, but of the deeply intuitive mind that has to be awakened as part of the life of discipline: the mind we know nothing of….
* Walden, “Economy” chapter
** Walden, “Conclusion” chapter

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