An interpretation of Thoreau's philosophy
Morgan, Emma Dorcas
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An interpretation of Thoreau's philosophy would quite naturally begin with a study of the influences which were prominent in the formative years of his thinking. Since the readings of the Orientals- chiefly the "Bhagavad-Gita", "The Laws of Menu", "The Veda", and portions of Confucius -had such profound effect upon each of the two books published in his lifetime, as well as the fourteen or so volumes of his Journals, comprising everything he put down on paper - it has seemed proper to begin this thesis with a study of the Oriental influences. Thoreau began the readings of the Hindu literature shortly after his graduation from Harvard, when he was twenty years old. He repeatedly refers to these sacred works in all of his writings. In the first chapter of this study of Thoreau an attempt has been made to discover similarities between his philosophy and that of the Orientals whom he read so faithfully. In this correlation various phases of his philosophy have been considered - his attitude toward duty, solitude, nature, philanthropy, asceticism,freedom of the individual. Since a possible model for the famous "horse and hound" enigma has been found in Confucius's writings, a discussion of this passage is included in the chapter or Orientalism. The fact that a modern Oriental - Mahatma Ghandi - has utilized some of Thoreau's doctrines, admitting his indebtedness especially to "Civil Disobedience", is significant. Hence, a discussion of this subject is in the Oriental chapter. Thoreau was a self-confessed Transcendentalist. He was too close a follower of Emerson not to incorporate in his philosophy the principles of the American School of Transcendentalism. He was not interested, however, in formulating any system of Transcendentalism, as was Emerson, but his thinking was influenced a great deal by that school of philosophy so active in Concord in 1845. It is impossible to study Thoreau and extract Transcendentalism. A knowledge of the American version of Transcendentalism is based on the understanding of its forerunner - German Romanticism. Hence a brief consideration of the chief exponents of German Romanticism - Kant, the Schlegels, Navalis, Schleiermacher, Fichte, Jacobi - has been made in Chapter Two. Following this is a discussion showing the relation of bits of Thoreau's philosophy to German Romanticism and American Transcendentalism. Thoreau is the prophet of the new freedom which Americans in 1845 were just beginning to experience. An attempt has been made in Chapter Three to analyse Thoreau's various writings on freedom: his Harvard Commencement Address; his two greatest negatives, "Civil Disobedience" and "Life Without Principle"; "A Plea for Captain John Brown"; excerpts from "Walden", et cetera. The Chapter on Friendship and Love could not have been written with such a full understanding of some periods in Thoreau's life without the aid of Mr. Canby 's recent erudite biography. His research has put some new light on this facet of Thoreau' s personality. No longer can Thoreau be dismissed as a hermit, at odds with his fellowman, or as an abnormal person cold to human friendships and love. A casual reader of the facts of Thoreau's life might conclude he had no religion. But no unbiased person who knows Thoreau - if only through his most familiar writings, "The Week" and "Walden", can deny the profundity of his searchings for God in Nature; his numerous corrrrnents concerning his belief in an after life cannot be ignored. It is true his religion as far as practice was concerned was not the orthordox religion of 1845 Concord. Indeed, Christianity on the whole seemed to him to have hung its heart upon the willows; it seemed unable to sing its song in a strange land. A nearer approach to God, as far as Thoreau was concerned, was accomplished in the Hindu sacred writings. Thoreau objected to the many disciples of Christianity who showed the white of their eyes on Sunday and the black all the rest of the week. As he observed it, infidelity, not Christianity, prayed and kept the Sabbath and rebuilt the churches. It is not strange, then, to find in so good-natured a book as "The Week" Thoreau's trenchant essay on Christianity. In a final Chapter this phase of his thinking has been considered, for to see the full stature of Thoreau, one must study and understand his philosophy in its relation to religion.
Thesis (M.A.)--Boston University, 1940 PLEASE NOTE: pages 72, 76, 86, 91, and 102 were cut off in course of the scanning process. Pages 80 and 95 are missing from the physical thesis. We apologize for the inconvenience.