Henry David Thoreau - Biography
Henry David Thoreau was born in 1817 in Massachusetts, USA. A graduate from Harvard, Thoreau was a prolific writer who left behind a vast body of work from poetry to philosophy, from transcendentalism to history, from resistance against unjust states to abolitionism, compiling in over 20 volumes of work. Thoreau invested in a philosophy of life and praxis as opposed to a way of thinking and writing, he was a thinker that thought in terms of nature and the human condition. He was a very well read thinker with an excellent knowledge base from ancient Greek thought, passing through Asian traditions, and the western philosophy of his time. He is most famous for his literary work Walden and for his political work Civil Disobedience, although he also greatly contributed to the philosophy of science.
Thoreau had a long term relation with Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom he saw as a guide and a friend and with whom he constantly argued due to their different philosophical and personal positions. In his early works he followed Transcendentalism, the philosophy, supported by Ralph Waldo Emerson, based on the idea that the individual spirit transcends the material. He was also one of the first supporters of the evolution theory from Charles Darwin. During his life time, Thoreau only published two works, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and Walden, neither of which gave him any sort of income. Thoreau also worked in his family's pencil factory and as a land surveyor for most of his adult life. He died at the age of 44 after almost thirty years struggling with tuberculosis, and is buried in Concord, Massachusetts. His work has inspired thinkers well beyond his time, specially in the field of ecology, phenomenology, and radical political thought. After Thoreau's death, many groups were founded in his honour most notably The Walden Woods Project and The Thoreau Society.
Here is how Ralph Waldo Emerson described Thoreau:
He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the State: he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun. He chose, wisely, no doubt, for himself, to be the bachelor of thought and Nature. He had no talent for wealth, and knew how to be poor without the least hint of squalor or inelegance. .... Thoreau was sincerity itself ...
His most famous literary work is Walden, or Life in the Woods, based on two years he spend at the Walden Pond, on Ralph Waldo Emerson's land. There, he build for himself a cabin where he lived between 1845 and 1847. After this experience, he spent nine years editing and re-editing the work, trying to get it published. The work takes up the seasons as a metaphor for the human life and explores the relation to, and preservation of, nature, harmony, and the idea of beauty, claiming that those ideas should frame the social, the cultural, and the political. Thoreau comes back and again to the notion of awareness as a central virtue, allowing one to develop the ability to properly see things, an ability that takes discipline to achieve. The work does not fit into a clear genre. It is not a really a poem, nor a novel, nor a philosophical essay or an autobiography though contains elements of all such genres. It is a work full of contradictions, more busy with the formulation of ideas than with giving them a final shape. The book is a highly paradoxical mixture of a dialogue with Western philosophy and a plea for simplicity. Like in Nietzsche's writings, the book consists of a series of aphorisms which gives the work a fragmented character. The book had few enthusiasts in his time (his second and last book to be printed in his lifetime, it sold only 2,000 copies) but was later elevated to the status of a North-American classic.
His most famous political work, Civil Disobedience, influenced a great variety of thinkers after his time including Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, and Leon Tolstoy. The propeller for this work may well have been an anecdote of Thoreau's life. In 1846 he was asked to pay six years of delinquent taxes which he refused due to his opposition to slavery and to the Mexican-American war. He had to spend a night in jail and was only freed, against his will, when an aunt paid his taxes for him. A couple months after this incident Thoreau gave a lecture in the Lyceum about the relation between the individuals and the State where he developed on the notion of the right to self-government in opposition to an unjust State and the ideal that an honorable man could never adjust to injustice. A revised version of this lecture was published in 1849 as Resistance to Civil Government (better known as Civil Disobedience). The opening line of the essay is "That government is best which governs least" and he argues that governments tend to distance themselves from the people making it hard to the people to find their voice through it. He specially dwells in the Mexican-American war as an example of how a small oligarchy controlled government and had it make decisions in their interest, against the will of the people. Thoreau is seen by many as an anarchist but he actually saw in the resistance against an unfair government, not an anti-governmentalism but quite the contrary, a patriotism as it would stand for the desire for a better government. Thoreau closes the essay affirming that Democratic government is not a final form of government and that the government he would think as fair an just is nowhere to be seen.
Thoreau was a lifelong defender of abolitionism, with his most famous work on the subject being a lecture entitled Slavery in Massachusetts, following the conviction of a fugitive slave in Boston. Thoreau was a fierce critique of slavery and a strong supporter of John Brown, who tried to help slaves fight for freedom and was later hanged on the charge of treason. He was also a strong critique of the Fugitive slave act of 1850 that effectively spread the question of slavery through the whole country. Thoreau wrote about the many times he helped slaves to flee by driving them to the station and buying them train tickets.
Another important work of Thoreau is Life Without Principles where he lays out an ethics for life. In this essay, he attacked institutions, notably religious ones, that prevented subjects from dealing with questions outside of it, as if censoring or limiting the field of interest of individuals. Thoreau also advised to live life for what it is rather than to live in order work, in order to make money, in order to only then start living of the money made. He also claims that more time and energy should be spent on spheres of life other than politics, which he refers to as a "grotesque public sport." Most important, Thoreau stressed the distinction between civilization and economic progress arguing that the latter produced slavery as well as products while the former produced people with high purposes.
In the later years of his life, Thoreau became interested in botany, natural history, and travel writing. He observed the migration of birds, the change of weather, the blooming of the flowers in an attempt to anticipate the seasons. Throreau also dedicate much of his time analyzing the way in which forests recover after partial destruction, by dispersing seeds through the wind and through animals. His annotations on natural history add up to a document of two million words and his most important writings on the subject are Wild Apples, The Succession of Trees, and Autumnal Tints.