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Henry David Thoreau: Spiritual and Prophetic Writings

A Book Review

Erna Albertz

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Henry David Thoreau: Spiritual and Prophetic Writings, Edited and with an Introduction by Tim Flinders (Orbis Books, 2015) Softcover, 208 pages.

When most people think of Thoreau, words like simplicity, naturalist, and Walden come to mind. As Danny Heitman pointed out in a recent New York Times op-ed, Thoreau is America’s first declutterer. But how many know that essays by this father of minimalism inspired Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as they charted their courses of nonviolent resistance? Or that his thoughts on celibacy and chastity mirror those of medieval mystics such as Teresa of Avila and Meister Eckhart – although there is no evidence that he was ever exposed to their contemplations?

Heitman hints at the deeper reason for Thoreau’s decluttering bent. Beyond his joy in a physical surrounding free from man-made debris lay not only his wish for a liberated mind, but more significantly, his enduring hunger for absolute truth. Connecting more clearly and deeply with this ultimate source required a freed conscience; the act of physical decluttering was but a step toward moral and spiritual purity. Many of us sense this and make attempts now and then to sweep away the cobwebs that inevitably build up in our lives. But Thoreau kept house more consistently, steadily divesting himself of earthly things in order to keep sharp focus on the divine.

The result was a spiritual communion with other contemplatives and philosophers throughout the ages. And Thoreau’s ability to document what he had found allows us to profit from this wealth. A sampling of his astonishing spiritual depth and breadth has now been made available through a new book, Henry David Thoreau: Spiritual and Prophetic Writings, edited and introduced by Tim Flinders. Thoreau’s arguments are stimulating, and at times even discomforting. A reader may not agree with every one of his conclusions, but might, at the same time, find many of his insights applicable to life today.

It is easy, for example, to imagine the excitement with which Martin Luther King Jr. must have read passages such as these in Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience,” and to see their relevance to modern issues:

After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule, is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. 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? 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.

In another section of the book, Thoreau echoes Saint Augustine on the subject of chastity:

Who knows what sort of life would result if we had attained to purity? If I knew so wise a man as could teach me purity I would go to seek him forthwith. ... Yet the spirit can for the time pervade and control every member and function of the body, and transmute what in form is the grossest sensuality into purity and devotion. The generative energy, which, when we are loose, dissipates and makes us unclean, when we are continent invigorates and inspires us. Chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it. Man flows at once to God when the channel of purity is open. By turns our purity inspires and our impurity casts us down. He is blessed who is assured that the animal is dying out in him day by day, and the divine being established.

While it may seem incongruous to a Christian to “rely on our own strength” in obeying the conscience, Thoreau glimpses an inner tenacity independent of external influences in this passage from the section “Obedience to Conscience”:

There is something proudly thrilling in the thought that this obedience to conscience and trust in God, which is so solemnly preached in extremities and arduous circumstances, is only to retreat to one’s self, and rely on our own strength. In trivial circumstances I find myself sufficient to myself, and in the most momentous I have no ally but myself, and must silently put by their harm by my own strength, as I did the former. As my own hand bent aside the willow in my path, so must my single arm put to flight the devil and his angels. God is not our ally when we shrink. … If by trusting in God you lose any particle of your vigor, trust in him no longer. When you trust, do not lay aside your armor, but put it on and buckle it tighter. … And there is more of God and divine help in a man’s little finger than in idle prayer and trust.

The collection closes, appropriately, with the conclusion from Thoreau’s book, Walden. Arranged by theme, the volume is easy to dip into, yet equally satisfying if read in full. At times Thoreau is refreshingly witty – such as when he records his stubborn refusal to be agreeable in “frivolous society,” noting his resulting unpopularity. More importantly, though, the accord between his convictions and his lifestyle compels the reader to strive for the same.

Henry David Thoreau, Wikimedia Commons image. Henry David Thoreau
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