Thoreau’s Living Ethics: Walden and the Pursuit of Virtue

Thoreau’s Walden, (Wikipedia summarizes,) “is a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings” — a sort of memoir or collection of observations on man and nature, a celebration of the placid and the wild with a dose of wry skepticism about civilization. Sound about right?

Philip Cafaro thinks we’ve been mis­categorizing (and under­estimating) Walden by treating it as though it were merely some sort of romantic pastoral meditation, when in fact Thoreau intended it as a challenging book of practical, experimental philosophy.

The confusion comes because Thoreau was trying to extend a classical form of ethical philosophy that had gone out of fashion — to the extent that it had almost become unrecognizable. It was only after the virtue ethics revival of recent decades that Thoreau’s work could be appreciated for what it is.

“Because Walden is a work in virtue ethics,” Cafaro writes, “it is hard for some readers — and most contemporary philosophers — to see it as a work of ethics at all.”

Thoreau meant his book to show him trying to work out his ethical philosophy in practice, and so it discusses ethical questions in terms of concrete and specific means and ends and alternatives, and of real-life examples of choices he and his neighbors made. “Ironically, however,” Cafaro writes, “this comprehensiveness and specificity make it harder for most academic philosophers to recognize Walden as a genuine work in ethical philosophy, since contemporary ethical philosophy usually remains at a high level of generality and theoretical abstractness.”

Thoreau’s Walden retreat was not primarily from a “back to nature” impulse, but from a need to give himself enough space and breathing room to work out for himself how to live life best, without the hobbles of habit and cultural conformity. “I went into the woods,” Thoreau says, “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.”

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” he continues. Which is to say, Cafaro believes, Thoreau wanted a flourishing life, or, as Aristotle would put it, a life of eudaimonia. Thoreau had little patience for the small ethics of thou-shalt-nots and duties to our neighbors; he wanted to explore the big ethics that included such things but only as side effects of the project of flourishing and becoming a better person and sucking the marrow out of life. Ethics is not limited to a category of life, thought Thoreau, but: “Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice.”

Cafaro believes Thoreau was not only reawakening the ancient virtue ethics tradition, but was also trying to modernize and extend it. Among his contributions here was an attempt to make virtue ethics more democratic. Virtue ethics by its nature is impatient with the sort of “everyone’s a winner” denial of individual merit and championing of mediocrity that democracy sometimes encourages; but while ancient virtue ethics tends to be directed toward the aristocracy and to concern itself with the virtues of the ruling class, Thoreau’s virtue ethics is more down-to-earth and available to everyone.

Another addition Thoreau makes to the virtue ethics tradition is to incorporate an environmental consciousness into it: to make our relationship with the natural environment, and the health of that environment, a core component of human flourishing, and to promote respect for the flourishing of nature on its own terms (some of the virtues Thoreau praises are exemplified in his book by the behavior of animals, for example the “admirable virtue” of fish trying in vain to spawn up human-dammed streams). Cafaro goes so far as to call Walden “a fully developed and inspiring environmental virtue ethics” — an extension of the virtue ethics tradition that makes it especially important today.

Thoreau also insists that the virtues must be developed by the individual and for the individual. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all package or a single destiny or highest calling for everyone. We each need to build the virtues appropriate for ourselves, and this is something we have to do through real-world experimentation and practice (in several places in Walden he writes of what he is doing as an “experiment”). This, too, contrasts with the mix of theorizing and empirical observation in the Aristotelian tradition.

Thoreau also tries to reclaim the virtues from their ongoing appropriation by capitalism. He was living at a time when terms like…

(“For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” — the Bible)
(“Rest is not quitting / The busy career, / Rest is the fitting / Of self to one’s sphere.” — John Sullivan Dwight)
(“…people that trust wholly to other’s charity, and without industry of their own, will be always poor.” — William Temple)
(“The success of any great moral enterprise does not depend upon numbers.” — William Lloyd Garrison)
(“Beauty rests on necessities. The line of beauty is the result of perfect economy.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson)

…which had included, but not been exclusive to, connotations about money, finance, corporate behavior, accounting, and the like, began to be almost completely taken over by those uses. Thoreau pointedly and often ironically uses terms like these to try, in Cafaro’s words, “to remoralize America’s economic discourse [and] to moralize his own economic life and the lives of his readers.”

Thoreau, of course, was also a political thinker, and his contributions to political philosophy are also, I think, misunderstood and undervalued. Cafaro also discusses these, but I think his insight is weaker here. Rather than wrestling with the thoroughly radical and severe challenge of Thoreau’s actual political views, Cafaro seems to prefer to wish Thoreau had more ordinarily progressive ones, and then to criticize him for his failure to adequately justify these imagined points of view.

Thoreau complained that “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers… To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.” Thoreau’s work I think has made philosophers of many of his readers; and Cafaro’s may well help to make philosophers of some professors of philosophy.