This year the world celebrates the bicentennial of Henry David Thoreau’s birth in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1817. Thoreau was a writer, a philosopher and one of the first naturalists to appreciate Darwin’s work in the USA. He is now best known for his book Walden, in which he described his experience of two years living in a cabin by a lake, and his essay “Civil Disobedience,” in which this expression was used for the first time. This is the standard story, which you probably know.
But all that happened some time ago, so why is Thoreau still relevant in the contemporary world? Is he alive after 200 years? Why? My hypothesis is that Thoreau is alive (meaning: he is translated; he is read) because his life and writings are inexhaustible, in the sense that they provide a permanent source of perplexity and trigger a critical inquiry into several humanizing/dehumanizing tensions in contemporary societies. In his work there is a tension and ambiguity that is ours as well. That is why he has become a classic.
Take Thoreau’s approach to science, for instance. He wants to keep the best of both worlds: a world accessible to hard science but also a human world, one that is essentially open and ever mysterious. The world has limits but, according to Thoreau, they are not rigid or forever fixed. By means of human activity and conscious endeavor, he writes, “the limits of the actual are set some thoughts further off.” Thus the universe becomes “wider than our views of it” (Walden), thanks to “the elasticity of our imaginations” (Journal, May 31, 1853).
In March and August 1858 Thoreau discussed in his journal how language and communication help avoid the risk of making science too rigid and inhuman. Science is humanized by communicating it. But that is not an easy task, since it requires something similar to learning a new language. It might be the language of another human culture, or it might be the language or literature and the arts. The key for Thoreau is that, by means of that language-learning process, one should get closer to some human experience, so that one can share the scientist’s experience or feeling of discovery: “A fact stated barely is dry. It must be the vehicle of some humanity in order to interest us. […] It must be warm, moist, incarnated—have been breathed on at least. A man has not seen a thing who has not felt it” (February 23,1860).
Thoreau wanted warm, moist, incarnated, breathing facts. This is not the same as saying that there are no facts, or that any “alternative fact” is as good as other. We now live in a post-truth or post-factual world, its politics framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of actual policy. Thoreau did not go that way: he wanted the details, too, so that he could humanize the facts, to make better sense of them and arrive to a more encompassing truth. In this sense, there are no neutral facts, just personalized ones. We can read Thoreau in a post-modern fashion, and yet he believed in some form of absolute truth. This truth was not the result of science only, though, but the combined effort of both science and what Thoreau called poetry.
In his journal entry from October 13,1860, Thoreau wonders how a person can most readily recognize a plant or a flower, and he contrasts the scientific description with what he calls “the poetic or lively description.” The scientific one is impersonal like a photograph, which to Thoreau is something dull and dry. He favors paintings and sketches, because they are more human, they are closer to the personal reaction inspired by the sight of the flower, which is “unmeasured and eloquent.” That is, according to him, the truest description, which cannot be replaced by a scientific one, even if you could “count and measure and analyze every atom that seems to compose” the flower.
At 200, Thoreau qualifies as a classic in various senses of the word. But perhaps the one distinctive feature of a classic is to have a multiplicity of functions and to be as inexhaustible as the sight of a flower. Thus I would like to suggest a particular role for classical works such as Thoreau’s. To do that, I will use a piece of anecdotal information. In a letter, Thoreau’s friend and admirer H.G.O. Blake remembers how Thoreau had spoken about “retiring farther from our civilization”, with regard to which Blake asked if he would not miss (and be missed by) his friends. Thoreau answered: “No, I am nothing.” The reply left an enduring impression in Blake.
Thoreau is a classic because in his work we can find many resources to recover lost insights. I have written elsewhere about his political thought, describing it as a “hybrid” one. Some readers find humor in his work; others do not. His remarks about landscape and science are still relevant today. But, ultimately, I think that he is also alive at 200 because at 32 he could say “I am nothing.” Humility made him reject the role of a master or mentor which Blake was demanding from him. He did not provide any solutions; as he said in the essay on civil disobedience, “I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of society. I am not the son of the engineer.” Instead, he stood away from the machine and walked and wrote for 25 years. The lack of a single “Thoreau theory” allows his work to be co-opted by many different struggles (and philosophy is also a struggle, let us not forget it). Thus his life and works are, to adopt loosely Ernesto Laclau’s term, something of a “void signifier” in the cultural battlefields of science and democracy.