Thoreau’s Private Thoughts on Political Philosophy from His Journals

Thoreau’s journals, almost all of them, were finally published in a 14-volume set in . The version I’m working with compresses this into two books by printing on each page, four pages from the set.

The first of these books was checked out fifteen times , according to the rubber-stamped card glued to the page facing the inside front cover — about once a year. Perhaps it was referred to more than it was brought home (it is a heavy volume, after all) — it is full of smudges and stains and seems appropriately well-loved.

I suspect that some of Thoreau’s most dangerous insights may be found in these journals. He wrote:

We forget to strive and aspire, to do better ever than is expected of us. I cannot stay to be congratulated. I would leave the world behind me. We must withdraw from our flatterers, even from our friends. They drag us down. It is rare that we use our thinking faculty as resolutely as an Irishman his spade. To please our friends and relatives we turn out our silver ore in cartloads, while we neglect to work our mines of gold known only to ourselves far up in the Sierras, where we pulled up a bush in our mountain walk, and saw the glittering treasure. Let us return thither. Let it be the price of freedom to make that known.

I hope to discover some the gold that Thoreau uncovered but didn’t or couldn’t publish.

Do I do justice to his writing to make a collage of it? On the one hand, his journals often read as though they were meant to be fodder for a cut-and-paste job like this — a paragraph break for him might as well be the opening of a new volume. On the other hand, sometimes a closer look at the paragraphs surrounding one of his seemingly-out-of-the-blue political aphorisms reveals, if not an explicit metaphor, a train of thought that runs better with engine and caboose still attached.

Thoreau himself wondered about this:

I do not know but thoughts written down thus in a journal might be printed in the same form with greater advantage than if the related ones were brought together into separate essays. They are now allied to life, and are seen by the reader not to be far-fetched. It is more simple, less artful. I feel that in the other case I should have no proper frame for my sketches. Mere facts and names and dates communicate more than we suspect. Whether the flower looks better in the nosegay than in the meadow where it grew and we had to wet our feet to get it! Is the scholastic air any advantage?

Thoreau’s entry of , for instance, in which he reflects on how as people have domesticated animals there seems to be a dimension on which we and our drudge-beasts have met somewhere half-way… there are so many other places in that day’s lengthy entry in which men and beasts take each others’ places: squirrels gamboling like human performers, men walking in the road’s horse-track with two more in the wheel-ruts, the dog in whose eye Thoreau “see[s] the eye of his master.”

, he wrote sympathetically about a work-horse who was carting dirt for his owner. Most of the horse’s effort was spent doing his master’s labor, “though his tail was brushing off the flies,” and Thoreau tried to imagine the race of horses before they were subdued by man. There is a continuity between this and his more explicit thoughts the following day that is more poignant when both passages are read, but I also want to try to maintain a tight focus for the sake of brevity and so I have left out much that on a close reading might prove to be very much to the point.

It is wise to write on many subjects, to try many themes, that so you may find the right and inspiring one. Be greedy of occasions to express your thought. Improve the opportunity to draw analogies. There are innumerable avenues to a perception of the truth.… It is not in vain that the mind turns aside this way or that: follow its leading; apply it whither it inclines to go. Probe the universe in a myriad points.… He is a wise man and experienced who has taken many views; to whom stones and plants and animals and a myriad objects have each suggested something, contributed something.

So be it. I may have opportunities to second-guess and regret my editorial decisions, but I will also have opportunities to revise if need be.