Higher Laws

Return to the Thoreau homepage. In my view, "Higher Laws" is a disappointing chapter. First, Thoreau does not discuss here what I consider to be the true higher laws. "Higher Laws" deals with the animal versus the spiritual nature of man and argues for remaining pure and temperate. While being pure and temperate has some value, the true higher laws inspire us to sacrifice our immediate, personal well-being for higher principles, as we find in Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God Is Within You. Thoreau, in other parts of Walden and in "Civil Disobedience", does demonstrate these true higher laws (for instance {from "Civil Disobedience"}, "If I have unjustly wrestled a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him, though I drown myself") but he does not mention them here. Second, Thoreau is not very clear in this chapter. When discussing the killing of animals, his argument wanders around and lacks a definite conclusion. His discussion of other kinds of purity is much too vague and traditional. Finally, a number of the statements in this chapter ring false to me.

Still, his discussion of hunting and the killing of animals for food, while not a strong and focused argument, has been influential. Probably due to this chapter, H. Salt introduced Gandhi to Thoreau while Gandhi was struggling to avoid eating meat. In fact, this chapter helped influence me to quit eating mammals. And this chapter also helps us understand Thoreau's motivations better.

Thoreau is so circumspect towards the end of "Higher Laws" that his point may be elusive, but the purpose of the chapter is an argument for purity. Thoreau lived in a time between the Puritans and the Victorians, and although he was quite independent in much of his thinking, he was still very conventional in his moral attitudes towards bodily functions, especially sexual functions. Rather than seeing the sexual instincts of a person as a normal, healthy, and biologically necessary part of human nature, Thoreau's society saw them as examples of depravity and vice. Thoreau struggles for a more balanced view, but he is not very successful. Any time any sexual thought would enter his head, he would try to remove it. Thus Thoreau says in his journal for April 12, 1852, "Whatever may befall me, I trust that I may never lose my respect for purity in others. The subject of sex is one on which I do not wish to meet a man at all unless I can meet him on the most inspiring ground . . . I would preserve purity in act and thought, as I would cherish the memory of my mother." One of his comments on Whitman's Leaves of Grass was "As for its sensuality ... I do not so much wish that those parts had not been written, as that men and women were so pure that they could read them without harm, that is, without understanding them."

One claim that some have made about Thoreau is that he was a homosexual. What evidence is there for and against this notion? In support, it can be pointed out that he never married and frequently commented that he didn't like women. For instance, he said in his journal on November 14, 1851, "I confess that I am lacking a sense, perchance, in this respect, and I derive no pleasure from talking with a young woman half an hour simply because she has regular features. The society of young women is the most unprofitable I have ever tried. They are so light and flighty that you can never be sure whether they are there or not there." In opposition, it must also be pointed out that he once asked Ellen Sewell to marry him, that he exchanged poetry with a second woman, and that he became infatuated with a third woman (already married). Finally, there is no evidence that I have seen that he ever became romantically involved with any man. His male friends were all married.

Frankly, I think the argument that he was a homosexual is based on a serious misunderstanding of the non-sexual nature of Thoreau's life. Thoreau's views are just the opposite of the sexually hedonistic attitudes (both homosexual and heterosexual) which are prevalent today. His lack of an outspoken sexual interest in young women was due to his rejection of his sexual impulses and not because he was sexually attracted to men.

Thoreau did have another reason for not enjoying the company of women: he found them empty-headed and thus uninteresting. He really expected a woman to be able to talk with him about serious subjects just as he could with a man, and he enjoyed the conversations he could have with a few women on that level. However, most women were raised at that time to have no opinions, so they would not compete with men, and women did not have the same educational opportunities as men either.

I really think that we are better off because Thoreau never married. Could he spend his life focused on Nature and on writing with a wife and children to support? Or would his wife have been satisfied with the simple life? Would Walden ever have been written? This is not to say that I think his messages and philosophy are useful to single men only, just that he needed to focus on them during his short and happy life. It is much more important to have abundant intellectual offspring than it is to have a few physical ones.

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As I came home through the woods with my string of fish, trailing my pole, it being now quite dark, I caught a glimpse of a woodchuck stealing across my path, and felt a strange thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw; not that I was hungry then, except for that wildness which he represented. Once or twice, however, while I lived at the pond, I found myself ranging the woods, like a half-starved hound, with a strange abandonment, seeking some kind of venison which I might devour, and no morsel could have been too savage for me. The wildest scenes had become unaccountably familiar. I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good. The wildness and adventure that are in fishing still recommended it to me. I like sometimes to take rank hold on life and spend my day more as the animals do. Perhaps I have owed to this employment and to hunting, when quite young, my closest acquaintance with Nature. They early introduce us to and detain us in scenery with which otherwise, at that age, we should have little acquaintance. Fishermen, hunters, woodchoppers, and others, spending their lives in the fields and woods, in a peculiar sense a part of Nature themselves, are often in a more favorable mood for observing her, in the intervals of their pursuits, than philosophers or poets even, who approach her with expectation. She is not afraid to exhibit herself to them. The traveller on the prairie is naturally a hunter, on the head waters of the Missouri and Columbia a trapper, and at the Falls of St. Mary a fisherman. He who is only a traveller learns things at second-hand and by the halves, and is poor authority. We are most interested when science reports what those men already know practically or instinctively, for that alone is a true humanity, or account of human experience. The first sentence ties back to the previous chapter, as Thoreau was likely to do.

Thoreau states that he loves both our savage impulses and our impulses towards purity.

He claims that hunters, fishermen, and woodchoppers often can appreciate Nature more than philosophers and poets.

According to the American Tradition in Literature, 1967, The Falls of St. Mary mentioned is at Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, while according to The Variorum Walden, it is in southern British Columbia. While Thoreau was probably referring to something he had recently read and that his townspeople might recognize, does it really matter today which St. Mary's Falls he had in mind? Would it make any difference if the falls were in England or South Africa? For that reason, I ignore most such notes.

They mistake who assert that the Yankee has few amusements, because he has not so many public holidays, and men and boys do not play so many games as they do in England, for here the more primitive but solitary amusements of hunting, fishing, and the like have not yet given place to the former. Almost every New England boy among my contemporaries shouldered a fowling-piece between the ages of ten and fourteen; and his hunting and fishing grounds were not limited, like the preserves of an English nobleman, but were more boundless even than those of a savage. No wonder, then, that he did not oftener stay to play on the common. But already a change is taking place, owing, not to an increased humanity, but to an increased scarcity of game, for perhaps the hunter is the greatest friend of the animals hunted, not excepting the Humane Society. Due to the Puritan history of New England, public holidays were not really celebrated. Even New England Christmas was a short, quiet, and to outsiders, a dismal and depressing occasion. It's easy to see why New Englanders would choose hunting as a recreation.

In the last sentence, is Thoreau being sarcastic? In "Winter Animals," he points out several species which become extinct in his area due to over-hunting.

Moreover, when at the pond, I wished sometimes to add fish to my fare for variety. I have actually fished from the same kind of necessity that the first fishers did. Whatever humanity I might conjure up against it was all factitious, and concerned my philosophy more than my feelings. I speak of fishing only now, for I had long felt differently about fowling, and sold my gun before I went to the woods. Not that I am less humane than others, but I did not perceive that my feelings were much affected. I did not pity the fishes nor the worms. This was habit. As for fowling, during the last years that I carried a gun my excuse was that I was studying ornithology, and sought only new or rare birds. But I confess that I am now inclined to think that there is a finer way of studying ornithology than this. It requires so much closer attention to the habits of the birds, that, if for that reason only, I have been willing to omit the gun. Yet notwithstanding the objection on the score of humanity, I am compelled to doubt if equally valuable sports are ever substituted for these; and when some of my friends have asked me anxiously about their boys, whether they should let them hunt, I have answered, yes, -- remembering that it was one of the best parts of my education, -- make them hunters, though sportsmen only at first, if possible, mighty hunters at last, so that they shall not find game large enough for them in this or any vegetable wilderness, -- hunters as well as fishers of men. Thus far I am of the opinion of Chaucer's nun, who

"yave not of the text a pulled hen That saith that hunters ben not holy men."

Thoreau mentions the issue of being humane but does not discuss whether fishes and birds have individual consciousnesses and are aware of pain.

Bird watchers routinely shot birds long past Thoreau's time in order to study them better. Thoreau suggests that by studying the birds without the gun and paying more attention to the birds' activities, one will become more knowledgeable anyway.

Since New England was lacking in other outdoor sports, Thoreau recommended hunting and fishing. How else could children learn to love the woods?

"Fishers of men" is Jesus' statement.

It was the monk, not the nun, who didn't agree with the text. Rather than engaging in humble work or in study, the monk spent all of his time hunting.

There is a period in the history of the individual, as of the race, when the hunters are the "best men," -- as the Algonquins called them. We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected. This was my answer with respect to those youths who were bent on this pursuit, trusting that they would soon outgrow it. No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature which holds its life by the same tenure that he does. The hare in its extremity cries like a child. I warn you, mothers, that my sympathies do not always make the usual philanthropic distinctions. The argument here is that as the individual and mankind mature, they will outgrow the desire to hunt. Note that here Thoreau recognizes a desire for life and the ability to feel terror and pain on the part of the animal.

"Philanthropic" literally means "loving humans."

Such is oftenest the young man's introduction to the forest, and the most original part of himself. He goes thither at first as a hunter and fisher, until at last, if he has the seeds of a better life in him, he distinguishes his proper objects, as a poet or naturalist it may be, and leaves the gun and fish-pole behind. The mass of men are still and always young in this respect. In some countries a hunting parson is no uncommon sight. Such a one might make a good shepherd's dog, but is far from being the Good Shepherd. I have been surprised to consider that the only obvious employment, except wood-chopping, ice-cutting, or the like business, which ever to my knowledge detained at Walden Pond for a whole half-day any of my fellow-citizens, whether fathers or children of the town, with just one exception, was fishing. Commonly they did not think that they were lucky, or well paid for their time, unless they got a long string of fish, though they had the opportunity of seeing the pond all the while. They might go there a thousand times before the sediment of fishing would sink to the bottom and leave their purpose pure; but no doubt such a clarifying process would be going on all the while. The Governor and his Council faintly remember the pond, for they went a-fishing there when they were boys; but now they are too old and dignified to go a-fishing, and so they know it no more forever. Yet even they expect to go to heaven at last. If the legislature regards it, it is chiefly to regulate the number of books to be used there; but they know nothing about the book of hooks with which to angle for the pond itself, impaling the legislature for a bait. Thus, even in civilized communities, the embryo man passes through the hunter stage of development. Thoreau feels that through hunting and fishing, the person with "the seeds for a better life," the "embryo man" will gradually recognize a higher purpose for going to the woods, although the majority of people will not. Instead, they will visit the woods only to go fishing. Thoreau feels that this experience will improve them, nonetheless. He considers it ironic that the governor and heads of state expect to go to heaven yet can't appreciate Walden Pond.

I can't explain the metaphor about the "book of hooks" and "impaling the legislature for a bait" but the imagery is reminicent of John Donne's "The Bait." At any rate, the idea is that there are purposes far beyond those understood by the leaders of the government.

I have found repeatedly, of late years, that I cannot fish without falling a little in self-respect. I have tried it again and again. I have skill at it, and, like many of my fellows, a certain instinct for it, which revives from time to time, but always when I have done I feel that it would have been better if I had not fished. I think that I do not mistake. It is a faint intimation, yet so are the first streaks of morning. There is unquestionably this instinct in me which belongs to the lower orders of creation; yet with every year I am less a fisherman, though without more humanity or even wisdom; at present I am no fisherman at all. But I see that if I were to live in a wilderness I should again be tempted to become a fisher and hunter in earnest. Beside, there is something essentially unclean about this diet and all flesh, and I began to see where housework commences, and whence the endeavor, which costs so much, to wear a tidy and respectable appearance each day, to keep the house sweet and free from all ill odors and sights. Having been my own butcher and scullion and cook, as well as the gentleman for whom the dishes were served up, I can speak from an unusually complete experience. The practical objection to animal food in my case was its uncleanness; and besides, when I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially. It was insignificant and unnecessary, and cost more than it came to. A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth. Like many of my contemporaries, I had rarely for many years used animal food, or tea, or coffee, &c.; not so much because of any ill effects which I had traced to them, as because they were not agreeable to my imagination. The repugnance to animal food is not the effect of experience, but is an instinct. It appeared more beautiful to live low and fare hard in many respects; and though I never did so, I went far enough to please my imagination. I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind. It is a significant fact, stated by entomologists, I find it in Kirby and Spence, that "some insects in their perfect state, though furnished with organs of feeding, make no use of them"; and they lay it down as "a general rule, that almost all insects in this state eat much less than in that of larvae. The voracious caterpillar when transformed into a butterfly... and the gluttonous maggot when become a fly" content themselves with a drop or two of honey or some other sweet liquid. The abdomen under the wings of the butterfly stir represents the larva. This is the tidbit which tempts his insectivorous fate. The gross feeder is a man in the larva state; and there are whole nations in that condition, nations without fancy or imagination, whose vast abdomens betray them. Although the first sentence of this chapter closely tied it to Thoreau's life at the pond, it's clear from this paragraph that it was written much later. By this time, Thoreau is no longer eating woodchucks and has even abandoned fishing.

The argument that meat-eating is not clean does not seem especially strong to me. Nowadays, a large percentage of people eat their meals in restaurants and never even have to wash dishes, let alone having to kill and butcher the animal or store it without refrigeration or dispose of the carcass without the help of a garbage service. They are unaware of sanitation and health problems at the slaughter houses.

Note that Thoreau not only reduced his meat-eating but also the amount of food that he ate. We seen in his list of foods in "Economy" that he also limited the variety of foods that he ate as well. His habit when eating with others was to eat the closest dish, without trying to eat a variety.

While eating a diet with fewer calories has been found to be healthful, it has also been discover that the best diet includes eating a good variety of grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Does eating a big meal keep one from having a good imagination? There are much stronger arguments against over-indulgence and against meat-eating.

It is hard to provide and cook so simple and clean a diet as will not offend the imagination; but this, I think, is to be fed when we feed the body; they should both sit down at the same table. Yet perhaps this may be done. The fruits eaten temperately need not make us ashamed of our appetites, nor interrupt the worthiest pursuits. But put an extra condiment into your dish, and it will poison you. It is not worth the while to live by rich cookery. Most men would feel shame if caught preparing with their own hands precisely such a dinner, whether of animal or vegetable food, as is every day prepared for them by others. Yet till this is otherwise we are not civilized, and, if gentlemen and ladies, are not true men and women. This certainly suggests what change is to be made. It may be vain to ask why the imagination will not be reconciled to flesh and fat. I am satisfied that it is not. Is it not a reproach that man is a carnivorous animal? True, he can and does live, in a great measure, by preying on other animals; but this is a miserable way, -- as any one who will go to snaring rabbits, or slaughtering lambs, may learn, -- and he will be regarded as a benefactor of his race who shall teach man to confine himself to a more innocent and wholesome diet. Whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized. Note he says that fruits eaten temperately are not a problem; Thoreau loved berry picking, mentioned below. Many condiments are known health risks: salt causes high blood pressure and is responsible for heart attacks; MSG was nearly banned.

My contention for many years has been that most people would quit eating meat if they had to kill the animals themselves. Most animals are slaughtered in assembly lines by immigrant workers who have a high injury rate and no health benefits or insurance.

A friend of mine wanted to convince me that it was OK to eat pork by proving that I was unwilling to kill a chicken. Although I had never killed one, I always assumed that I would be willing to do so, but I was not, so I immediately quit eating chicken as a result.

If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies. The faintest assured objection which one healthy man feels will at length prevail over the arguments and customs of mankind. No man ever followed his genius till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles. If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal, -- that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched. While Thoreau was an individualist, he was very much a Transcendentalist, as this passage makes clear. The Transcendentalists believed that truth could be discovered within. Charles Mayo Ellis, in "An Essay on Transcendentalism," (found in Perry Miller's The American Transcendentalists) wrote, ". . . the highest part of our nature. This has the power of perceiving that which is independent of itself -- true, good, and beautiful. For this it longs; this gives it strength and vigor. This is not doubted in everyday life -- all act upon it. We call him whom we find destitute of it an incomplete man, insane." Thoreau"s passage also echoes statements made in "Economy" and "Where I Lived."
Yet, for my part, I was never unusually squeamish; I could sometimes eat a fried rat with a good relish, if it were necessary. I am glad to have drunk water so long, for the same reason that I prefer the natural sky to an opium-eater's heaven. I would fain keep sober always; and there are infinite degrees of drunkenness. I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man; wine is not so noble a liquor; and think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea! Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them! Even music may be intoxicating. Such apparently slight causes destroyed Greece and Rome, and will destroy England and America. Of all ebriosity, who does not prefer to be intoxicated by the air he breathes? I have found it to be the most serious objection to coarse labors long continued, that they compelled me to eat and drink coarsely also. But to tell the truth, I find myself at present somewhat less particular in these respects. I carry less religion to the table, ask no blessing; not because I am wiser than I was, but, I am obliged to confess, because, however much it is to be regretted, with years I have grown more coarse and indifferent. Perhaps these questions are entertained only in youth, as most believe of poetry. My practice is "nowhere," my opinion is here. Nevertheless I am far from regarding myself as one of those privileged ones to whom the Ved refers when it says, that "he who has true faith in the Omnipresent Supreme Being may eat all that exists," that is, is not bound to inquire what is his food, or who prepares it; and even in their case it is to be observed, as a Hindoo commentator has remarked, that the Vedant limits this privilege to "the time of distress." Thoreau makes the point rather strongly that his desire for a purer diet is not caused by squemishness. He rejects alcohol, sees his pleasure in coffee and tea as a weakness, and even warns against strong music. While members of the hippie movement sometimes claimed Thoreau as one of their own, he would have rejected not only their drugs and sex but also their music.

Wasn't Emily Dickinson inspired by Thoreau's "Of all ebriosity, who does not prefer to be intoxicated by the air he breathes?" when she wrote:
  Inebriate of air am I,
  And debauchee of dew,
  Reeling, through endless summer days,
  From inns of molten blue.

Thoreau and Dickinson preferred a natural high created by sensitivity rather than by excess.

Who has not sometimes derived an inexpressible satisfaction from his food in which appetite had no share? I have been thrilled to think that I owed a mental perception to the commonly gross sense of taste, that I have been inspired through the palate, that some berries which I had eaten on a hillside had fed my genius. "The soul not being mistress of herself," says Thseng-tseu, "one looks, and one does not see; one listens, and one does not hear; one eats, and one does not know the savor of food." He who distinguishes the true savor of his food can never be a glutton; he who does not cannot be otherwise. A puritan may go to his brown-bread crust with as gross an appetite as ever an alderman to his turtle. Not that food which entereth into the mouth defileth a man, but the appetite with which it is eaten. It is neither the quality nor the quantity, but the devotion to sensual savors; when that which is eaten is not a viand to sustain our animal, or inspire our spiritual life, but food for the worms that possess us. If the hunter has a taste for mud-turtles, muskrats, and other such savage tidbits, the fine lady indulges a taste for jelly made of a calf's foot, or for sardines from over the sea, and they are even. He goes to the mill-pond, she to her preserve-pot. The wonder is how they, how you and I, can live this slimy, beastly life, eating and drinking. One way to enjoy life more is by becoming more sensitive. I find by not using salt, pepper, and spices that my tongue becomes more sensitive, and thus my food is quite flavorful. My food is heathier too. Although I don't use alcohol, tobacco, or drugs, I do experience natural highs that can cause no harm. Because I am not constantly assaulted by loud music or the noise of traffic, I can enjoy the faint sounds of the woods.

For my part, I can't condemn eating and drinking, or see the desire for unusual flavors as wrong. However, there would be a heavy price to be paid for an exotic cuisine: my freedom. I would rather have my simple, healthy diet and freedom to live the life that I choose than have all the luxurious meals in the universe without that freedom.

Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant's truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails. In the music of the harp which trembles round the world it is the insisting on this which thrills us. The harp is the travelling patterer for the Universe's Insurance Company, recommending its laws, and our little goodness is all the assessment that we pay. Though the youth at last grows indifferent, the laws of the universe are not indifferent, but are forever on the side of the most sensitive. Listen to every zephyr for some reproof, for it is surely there, and he is unfortunate who does not hear it. We cannot touch a string or move a stop but the charming moral transfixes us. Many an irksome noise, go a long way off, is heard as music, a proud, sweet satire on the meanness of our lives. One does not have to have a Puritan background to recognize that there is always an internal struggle between experiencing some immediate pleasure and being more temperate. If people surrendered to whatever impulses they felt at the time, we would have a great deal more robbery, murder, rape, and violence than we do now. The surprising truth is that very few people are willing to commit crimes, even though it would be easy for all of us to do so.
We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers. It is reptile and sensual, and perhaps cannot be wholly expelled; like the worms which, even in life and health, occupy our bodies. Possibly we may withdraw from it, but never change its nature. I fear that it may enjoy a certain health of its own; that we may be well, yet not pure. The other day I picked up the lower jaw of a hog, with white and sound teeth and tusks, which suggested that there was an animal health and vigor distinct from the spiritual. This creature succeeded by other means than temperance and purity. "That in which men differ from brute beasts," says Mencius, "is a thing very inconsiderable; the common herd lose it very soon; superior men preserve it carefully." 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. "A command over our passions, and over the external senses of the body, and good acts, are declared by the Ved to be indispensable in the mind's approximation to God." Yet the spirit can for the time pervade and control every member and function of the body, and transmute what ill 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. Perhaps there is none but has cause for shame on account of the inferior and brutish nature to which he is allied. I fear that we are such gods or demigods only as fauns and satyrs, the divine allied to beasts, the creatures of appetite, and that, to some extent, our very life is our disgrace. --

"How happy's he who hath due place assigned
To his beasts and disafforested his mind!
      *     *     *     *     *
Can use this horse, goat, wolf, and ev'ry beast,
And is not ass himself to all the rest!
Else man not only is the herd of swine,
But he's those devils too which did incline
Them to a headlong rage, and made them worse."

One current theory about how our minds work is that one part of the brain is more primitive than the rest, and this part is described as being lizard-like or dinosaur-like. One book discussing this is called Dragons of Eden, another Dinosaur Brains.

Thoreau evidently is surprised that the hog could be healthy even though it had no concept of being pure. While avoiding drugs and some foods may be good for the health, there is no physical advantage caused by a pure mind! These ideas were common, however, and children were taught not to masterbate (called self-abuse) because doing so would leave them sickly and unhealthy. My mother once gave me a book called Self-Help for Boys, written during the 30's, which focused on that topic.

Thoreau's next remarks, beginning "the generative energy," are evidently about masterbation. He said about Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which is hardly an erotic book: "I do not so much wish that it were not written, as that men and women were so pure that they could read it without harm."

According to Harding, the poem is from John Donne (who advocates sexual freedom elsewhere; see "The Indifferent").

All sensuality is one, though it takes many forms; all purity is one. It is the same whether a man eat, or drink, or cohabit, or sleep sensually. They are but one appetite, and we only need to see a person do any one of these things to know how great a sensualist he is. The impure can neither stand nor sit with purity. When the reptile is attacked at one mouth of his burrow, he shows himself at another. If you would be chaste, you must be temperate. What is chastity? How shall a man know if he is chaste? He shall not know it. We have heard of this virtue, but we know not what it is. We speak conformably to the rumor which we have heard. From exertion come wisdom and purity; from sloth ignorance and sensuality. In the student sensuality is a sluggish habit of mind. An unclean person is universally a slothful one, one who sits by a stove, whom the sun shines on prostrate, who reposes without being fatigued. If you would avoid uncleanness, and all the sins, work earnestly, though it be at cleaning a stable. Nature is hard to be overcome, but she must be overcome. What avails it that you are Christian, if you are not purer than the heathen, if you deny yourself no more, if you are not more religious? I know of many systems of religion esteemed heathenish whose precepts fill the reader with shame, and provoke him to new endeavors, though it be to the performance of rites merely. Thoreau, in his desire for purity, suggests keeping busy, as keeping busy reduces sexual impulses. He cannot claim to be pure because the human mind naturally thinks about sex from time to time. He contradicts his statements elsewhere by speaking here against idleness and against Nature.

To me, the problem is not with our natural sexual appetites but with our behavior. We have to control our behavior to prevent undesirable social consequences. Even consensual sex between adults leads to disease, divorce, unwanted pregnancies, and unloved children. Inasmuch as Thoreau's deviancy was only within his imagination, he has nothing to feel ashamed about.

I hesitate to say these things, but it is not because of the subject, -- I care not how obscene my words are, -- but because I cannot speak of them without betraying my impurity. We discourse freely without shame of one form of sensuality, and are silent about another. We are so degraded that we cannot speak simply of the necessary functions of human nature. In earlier ages, in some countries, every function was reverently spoken of and regulated by law. Nothing was too trivial for the Hindoo lawgiver, however offensive it may be to modern taste. He teaches how to eat, drink, cohabit, void excrement and urine, and the like, elevating what is mean, and does not falsely excuse himself by calling these things trifles. While I don't agree with recreational sex, I do think it is healthier that people can now talk frankly about their sexual problems.

This contradicts what was said earlier: in the first part of "Economy," Thoreau criticizes all the rules governing the way we live our lives.

Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man's features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute them. Here I agree wholeheartedly. Live the way you believe; be your own hero and the masterpiece of your own efforts. Create for yourself a healthy body and a healthy mind.
John Farmer sat at his door one September evening, after a hard day's work, his mind still running on his labor more or less. Having bathed, he sat down to recreate his intellectual man. It was a rather cool evening, and some of his neighbors were apprehending a frost. He had not attended to the train of his thoughts long when he heard some one playing on a flute, and that sound harmonized with his mood. Still he thought of his work; but the burden of his thought was, that though this kept running in his head, and he found himself planning and contriving it against his will, yet it concerned him very little. It was no more than the scurf of his skin, which was constantly shuffled off. But the notes of the flute came home to his ears out of a different sphere from that he worked in, and suggested work for certain faculties which slumbered in him. They gently did away with the street, and the village, and the state in which he lived. A voice said to him, -- Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you? Those same stars twinkle over other fields than these. -- But how to come out of this condition and actually migrate thither? All that he could think of was to practise some new austerity, to let his mind descend into his body and redeem it, and treat himself with ever increasing respect. Since Thoreau played the flute, I wonder if he isn't the imagined flute player here.

Of course, Thoreau is not talking about an actual event but an imagined one.

While I agree that the average person needs spiritual enlightenment, I do not think the best route is through self-denial.

Letting "his mind descend into his body" would be to let his mind control his body rather than his body control his mind.

Thoreau's Text in This Column
My Comments in This Column
Comments | SECTIONS: | The New World | Writing | Thoreau | Home | Bike Pages |
WALDEN: | Economy I | Economy II | Economy III | Economy IV | Where I Lived | Reading | Sounds | Solitude |
WALDEN: | Visitors |The Bean-Field | The Village | The Ponds | Baker Farm | Higher Laws | Brute Neighbors |
WALDEN: | House Warming | Former Inhabitants | Winter Animals | The Pond in Winter | Spring | Conclusion |
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