Transcendentalism: A Belief in Spirit by Cathryn McIntyre was written in tribute to Thoreau Scholar, Bradley P. Dean, Ph.D., upon his sudden passing in January 2006. It was published in the Thoreau Society Bulletin, No. 255, Summer 2006, and it appears here by permission of the Thoreau Society. Note: This marker was placed at the site of Thoreau's Bean-Field at Walden Pond in memoriam to Bradley P. Dean, Ph.D. who was credited with having located the site of the bean-field.
The Politics of Thoreau: A Spiritual Intent by Cathryn McIntyre was published in The Thoreau Society Bulletin, No. 262, Spring 2008, and it appears here by permission of the Thoreau Society. This essay should not be copied or reproduced without consent.
Transcendentalism: A Belief in Spirit was written by Cathryn McIntyre
in tribute to her mentor, Thoreau Scholar, Bradley P. Dean, Ph.D., upon his sudden passing in January 2006. It was published in the Thoreau Society Bulletin, No. 255, Summer 2006, and it appears here by permission of
The Thoreau Society.
Transcendentalism: A Belief in Spirit
by Cathryn McIntyre
It is at times of the greatest adversity in our lives that we most question our beliefs about life and death. As members of the Thoreau Society, we must now come to terms with the sudden passing of Bradley P. Dean, Thoreau Scholar, Independent Researcher, Editor of Thoreau's unfinished manuscripts and since 1991, editor of this bulletin.
When someone dies whom we love as family or friend, whom we respect and admire, or whose work has been as important to us as Brad's was to so many and whose promise of future work is now left unfulfilled, how do we reconcile the loss? And what does transcendentalism offer us as we face this most difficult of life's realities?
At the 2005 annual gathering, there was a presentation entitled: "Transcendentalism: Emerson to Thoreau." I arrived at the event excited to hear what this society that dedicates itself to Henry David Thoreau would have to say about the philosophy that he devoted his life to, but much to my disappointment neither of the distinguished presenters at the event that day were able to define transcendentalism in any kind of meaningful way. One spoke of Thoreau's decision to change his name from David Henry to Henry David, as if a name change itself was something transcendental, and the other spoke only in the most general terms about transcendentalism, and admitted to being unable to answer a question posed by a student who wanted to know the definition of transcendental meditation.
From my seat along the side wall overlooking the crowd of people gathered in the Masonic Temple in Concord on that hot July day, I wondered if I was the only one there who wanted to stand up and point out the obvious missing ingredient in each of the lectures presented. While my ongoing social reticence prevented me from raising my hand and speaking out, particularly to such a large and learned crowd, I was relieved when one gentleman did. He raised a tentative hand, took to his feet and asked "What about the spiritual side of transcendentalism?" and that is what I most wanted to know. How can one talk about transcendentalism without talking about spirit? And more importantly, how can one understand transcendentalism, without first understanding its core belief, that we are spiritual beings who are part of a divine energy source that permeates all aspects of the universe, and that upon death our spirit simply returns to that source?
That is the basis for transcendentalism and it is the very thing that so many people seem to have the most difficult time understanding. There have been many books and papers written by fine scholars who carefully define every nuance of this belief system and in doing so often take us too far away from this fundamental belief, the belief that we are infinite. This revelation that life is eternal, that within each of us is the spark of that whole (what Emerson called the "Over-Soul") that ignites and illuminates our every expression, and that the very light that is within all of us will always be, is the most important aspect of transcendentalism, and it is this belief that can help us most as we face life's most difficult times.
The transcendentalists of nineteenth-century Concord rejected as rationalist and materialistic, the views of English philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704), who declared that all ideas capable of conscious understanding were derived through interaction with the physical senses, and instead embraced the views of German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who believed that there were areas of knowledge that could be interpreted without the aid of human physiology. These areas were innate and intuitively understood by man, and the understanding of such ideas transcended sensation and reason.
The transcendentalists believed in what Emerson called "The Over-Soul"—a spiritual presence that pervades all aspects of man and nature. Emerson referred to it as: "that great nature in which we rest—that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other —- We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE."
Thoreau was first introduced to Emerson's transcendental beliefs upon reading his essay, Nature while a student at Harvard, but Thoreau had long understood that there was a spiritual presence in all things and a direct relationship between spirit and nature. He spent the greatest part of his life outdoors, examining and chronicling the nature that surrounded him, and by doing so, established a deeper connection to the divine spirit through that nature.
On a trip to Mt. Katahdin in 1846, Thoreau experienced what was perhaps his most profoundly transcendental moment. He recorded the event later, while back at his house on Walden Pond.
As he stood on Mt. Katahdin, Thoreau observed himself existing separate and apart from his body. He wrote: "I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one, that my body might, but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! This of our life in nature, daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, - rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?"
In his introduction to Thoreau's manuscript, Wild Fruits, Brad describes this passage as Thoreau's "attempt to articulate the ineffable, for Thoreau on Mount Katahdin, like Moses on Mount Sinai, had beheld God (spirit) and nature (matter) face to face." And he points to a sentence in Walden that again illuminates Thoreau's understanding of the spiritual. In Walden, Thoreau states: "Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations."
In the words of the Bhagavad Gita, a work that both Emerson and Thoreau turned to for wisdom: "Never the spirit was born, the spirit shall cease to be never. Never was time it was not, end and beginning are dreams."
And in a journal entry Emerson stated: "It is the secret of the world that all things subsist and do not die, but only retire a little from sight and afterwards return again. Nothing is dead; men feign themselves dead, and endure mock funerals and mournful obituaries, and there they stand looking out of the window, sound and well, in some new strange disguise. Jesus is not dead: he is very well alive; nor John, nor Paul. nor Mahomet, nor Aristotle; at times we believe we have seen them all, and could easily tell the names under which they go."
Although neither Emerson nor Thoreau supported the idea of explorations into the spiritual realm such as those practiced by many spiritualist groups in the nineteenth century and today, (Thoreau's statement "One world at a time," says it best), they each recognized the perpetual existence of the soul. For my own life. I have chosen a path that includes investigation of such things as the near death experience, reincarnation, clairvoyance and astrology, yet in all my years of research into these metaphysical areas I have found no one who more clearly understands and defines spiritual reality than Emerson or Thoreau.
In a February 28, 1840 journal entry, Thoreau wrote: "On the death of a friend, we should consider that the fates through confidence have devolved on us the task of a double living, that we have henceforth to fulfill the promise of our friend's life also, in our own, to the world."
Brad fulfilled the promise of his friend Henry David Thoreau's life by honoring him and completing for him, the work he had-left undone, and the rewards are for everyone and always.
In an email Brad sent to me one day during the time when he acted as advisor to me during my short-lived graduate program at Lesley University, he expressed to me what must have been a passing moment of doubt in what was otherwise his sheer unyielding dedication to publishing Thoreau's works. Brad had put so much of his life energy into these projects, had spent so much time combing over Thoreau's every word, and working to perfect their presentation. He remarked in particular on the amount of work that had gone into Wild Fruits, the preparation of the manuscript, and the incorporation of the illustrations. I assured him as quickly as I could by return email that Wild Fruits was a beautiful book and that every moment of time and every ounce of energy expended to bring that book to publication had indeed been worthwhile. Brad's mission, as editor of Thoreau's unfinished works, was truly a remarkable and noteworthy one and it was clear to me then just how tightly his legacy was intertwined with Thoreau's.
So, what do we do now, those of us who seek to honor Brad and to continue to cultivate his vision? Brad remarked to me more than once that he hoped to one day write a biography like the one I was writing, one that incorporated facts with vivid images that brought Thoreau and the other transcendentalists to life. As I move forward I will endeavor to fulfill this shared vision.
The last time I heard Brad speak on Thoreau was at a lecture he gave on his recently published book, Letters to a Spiritual Seeker. It was part of the Thoreau Society's 2005 Annual Gathering, and was held at Bronson Alcott's School of Philosophy. Those of us who gathered there that day were fortunate to experience Brad at his most enthusiastic and entertaining. He was full of the passion he had always had for Thoreau, and he gave what was one of the most interesting and amusing lectures I have ever heard. I will always remember Brad as he was that day, and his passion for Thoreau will forever inspire me.
The Politics of Thoreau: A Spiritual Intent was published in the Thoreau Society Bulletin, No. 262, Spring 2008, and it appears here by permission of the Thoreau Society. This essay should not be copied or reproduced without consent. For more information on the Thoreau Society or to obtain copies of past issues of the Bulletin, please go to: www.thoreausociety.org
The Politics of Thoreau: A Spiritual Intent
by Cathryn McIntyre
The theme of the next Thoreau Society annual gathering is: "The Individual and the State: The Politics of Thoreau in Our Time." Thoreau's views are always worth considering when assessing the political landscape of any time, but as I read through his politically inspired essays and lectures I am continually impressed, not by his political views, but by the way his spiritual awareness influenced his political views, and in fact all of his thinking, and it is that spiritual awareness, not his politics, that interests me most.
I believe Thoreau was first and foremost a spiritual man, a prophet in some ways, as from his post there at Walden Pond he foresaw the many challenges that would face mankind if we continued, as we did, at full speed into the industrial age. He had already witnessed men who led lives of quiet desperation as they sought satisfaction and fulfillment in material gains, and he knew this futile effort would only increase as new industry brought more goods to be obtained and more hours were spent working to earn the money to pay for such goods. The instruction from his masterwork, Walden, to "simplify, simplify" has for 154 years now summed up his message that satisfaction cannot be found in material things and the statement from his essay "Walking" that "Wildness is the preservation of the world" reminds us that nature offers us salvation as it stands as a testament to purity and truth, while at the same time it calls us to recognize what is most natural within us. It is important to note that he says "wildness" not "wilderness" as he is not simply speaking of nature (the wind, the trees, the birds), but of the quality of nature within man. The preservation of the world is within the wildness of nature and in the wildness, or we might say naturalness, of man, and the natural state of man is to Thoreau a spiritual one. This is a theme that is present throughout all of his work.
In Walden he states: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Thoreau also states that he wants to "suck out all the marrow of life" and he doesn't do this in a factory or even a university, he does this in his relations with nature and in establishing a direct relationship with the divine.
It is in Walden where he remarks: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Thoreau believed if you confine a man under government rules, tie him to his occupation, and monopolize his time with strictly material pursuits while holding him back from a direct relation with nature or from a direct connection to the divine, you will have a man who is leading a life of quiet desperation.
Thoreau spoke to the soul of man and challenged him to leave be the material concerns, to demand instead freedom and the right of self-determination. He inspired us to trust the wisdom that we receive through our own conscious connection to spirit and encouraged us to have the strength to pursue truth on our own, to stand up against the forces of politics or religions that attempt to use us for their own purposes and to establish instead our own true connection to the divine. This may be a solitary journey, but it is one that always leads us back to the whole.
Thoreau's political views were formed around this thinking. The only laws that he believed in were what he called the higher laws. He was not a politically-minded man. He did not support any political system. He believed that all institutions of government were by their very nature corrupt. He found the laws of the state to be unjust because they sought to dominate and control their citizens and undervalued the right of every man to self determination. He did not believe in majority rule because even if the majority were in agreement it did not guarantee that what they had agreed upon was right. The only majority Thoreau believed in was a majority of one.
In Thoreau's view, the wisdom that comes to the individual through his own conscience is far superior to the wisdom that is offered by any political system or state government.
In his essay most familiarly known as, "Civil Disobedience," he asks: "Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?—in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then?"
The rights of the individual are paramount to Thoreau, and the only government he could respect would be one that comes about naturally through a consensus of conscience-driven individuals. At no time would he favor the rights of the state over the rights of the individual and he had no respect for any man who allowed the laws of the state to overrule his own sense of right.
In "Civil Disobedience" he states: "I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience."
And he goes on to discuss how "essentially revolutionary" this concept of divinely inspired action is: "Action from principle—the perception and the performance of right --changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was. It not only divides states and churches, it divides families; ay, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine."
Thoreau's willingness to trust conscience is evidence that he was aware of something much deeper and more relevant than any political concern. Thoreau and all of those who followed the philosophy known as transcendentalism, which favors intuition over rationality in determining ultimate truth, believed that the conscience was man's link to the divine source, what Emerson called "the wise silence" and what Thoreau recognized as a wider spiritual reality. It matters not whether it is called Allah, Buddha, Krishna or God, it is all the same and it is the source from which we are all born.
Those who have a highly developed sense of the spiritual have an easier time grasping this concept, but those who are unable to see themselves as anything other than physical beings never fully understand Thoreau's broad intent and are left with a cursory or surface understanding of his true message. They label him a naturalist, a botanist or a surveyor of land, which are all correct words to define his interests and occupations, and yet they do not address the most relevant part of him. They also erroneously label him an anarchist because he encourages defiance of government rule, even though in "Civil Disobedience" he clearly asks for "not at once no government, but at once a better government." He is not advocating for a system of anarchy, where every man's self-centered and ego-driven desires are paramount and at odds with his fellow man. What he envisions is a government that allows for perfect sovereignty for the individual. This is for him a manner of living where conduct is not dictated by the laws of a government, but by the higher laws. When guided by those laws, individuals act in proper portion and respect for one another and live in peace and harmony. This is Thoreau's ideal. This is his hope for mankind.
Thoreau's political philosophy then is not an antagonistic one. He is not simply calling for dissension and disputes with government for the sake of defiance, but he is calling for each individual to better understand his own true nature, to recognize himself as a spiritual being that is part of a much larger whole, and then to act in accordance with a true sense of right that can only come from a direct relation to that center. No political or religious system is necessary to make this connection. It is there and available to all of us. It is who we are, and Thoreau teaches us that we can reach this through a deep respect and cultivation of nature, which he sees as our greatest guide for discovering the truth of all. Thoreau sees nature as a perfect system, one where politics are not needed or necessary. All parts and particles of nature are in touch with their true selves, a tree is a tree, a frog is a frog. For Thoreau it is an environment of divinely inspired beings, in touch with their own true natures and acting accordingly and he wishes the same for man.
In "Civil Disobedience" he states: "I perceive that, when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other. If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man."
Thoreau believed man must be allowed to cultivate the soul within him, and if allowed to do so, each man will arrive at the same conclusion, and it is one that will bring enlightenment not just to the individual but to all. This may be considered by some to be an idealistic view, but this was Thoreau's truth, his perfect understanding of what is.
Those who seek to challenge such views often point to an apparent flaw in Thoreau's thinking that arises when the subject of politically- or religiously-based fundamentalism is raised, but there is a distinct difference between Thoreau's faith in the individual to use his conscience to intuit proper and right action and the faith of the religious fanatics who blow up abortion clinics or who engage in terrorism such as America's 9-11 or England's 7-7. Those individuals are not engaged in acts that are guided by the divine source of ultimate truth; they are committed to following the imperatives outlined for them by their religious or political beliefs. They are engaged in a form of majority rule.
Thoreau's support of abolitionist John Brown is another example that is thought to challenge the wisdom of his beliefs. Thoreau believed Brown to be a man whose actions were guided by conscience and by an ultimate sense of right. Much like Thoreau, Brown saw slavery and the government that sanctioned it as evil and could not sit back resolutely and allow it to continue unchallenged. For Thoreau this meant speaking out publicly against slavery and engaging wherever he could in activities that worked against it, but for Brown this meant an organized revolt, gathering together men who shared his sympathies and would finance his activities and putting together an armed unit of men who would help him carry out his often violent strategies. Many believed Brown to be motivated more by his own religious zeal than by any connection to what was right, and there were many who questioned his sanity, but Thoreau remained steadfast in his support of a man whose actions he saw as divinely inspired, and he lashed out against a government that would put to death such a righteous man.
In his lecture first delivered in Concord, Massachusetts, on October 30, 1859, and in the essay record of it called, "A Plea for Captain John Brown," he states: "The only government that I recognize,—and it matters not how few are at the head of it, or how small its army,—is that power that establishes justice in the land, never that which establishes injustice."
The government that put John Brown to death was an unjust government, and Brown was, in Thoreau's view, the worthiest of men. Given how violent many of Brown's activities were, it is remarkable that Thoreau stood by him. It is a testament to the devotion he had not just to Brown, but to his own ideals and principles.
In his plea for John Brown, Thoreau expresses his abiding faith in Brown with such statements as: "Truth is his inspirer, and earnestness the polisher of his sentences," "He shows himself superior to nature. He has a spark of divinity in him," and "This man was an exception, for he did not set up even a political graven image between him and his God." This last statement is most critical, for it is a statement that verifies Thoreau's truest political beliefs,
that no government or political image should ever come between man
and his God.
It seems to me then that in every direction we go in Thoreau's work we find the same sometimes subtle but ever present message, that we are spiritual beings, born of the same divine source and our actions must be guided by our conscious connection to that source and not by the laws of any government. How great the impact of this philosophy might be on our times if it were more widely understood and practiced. If we followed the wisdom that comes to us directly from the divine, we might no longer have the need for, or the conflicts that result from, politics or religion.
In a journal entry from April 2, 1852, Thoreau states: "I do not value any view of the universe into which man and the institutions of man enter very
largely and absorb much of the attention. Man is but the place where I stand, and the prospect hence is infinite. It is not a chamber of mirrors which reflect me."