Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing

By Alfred I. Tauber | Go to book overview

3
Another Apple Tree

Nature has looked uncommonly bare & dry to me for a day or
two. With our senses applied to the surrounding world we are
reading our own physical & corresponding moral revolutions.
Nature was so shallow all at once I did not know what had
attracted me all my life. I was therefore encouraged when going
through a field this evening, I was unexpectedly struck with the
beauty of an apple tree–The perception of beauty is a moral test.

Thoreau, June 21, 1852,
Journal 5, 1997, p. 120

The last sentence of the above-quoted passage from Thoreau's Journal resounds with Walden 's “Our whole life is startlingly moral” (1971, p. 218) if one properly situates these statements on a set of coordinates defined by several axes. Just as space is geometrically defined by three vectors in Cartesian geometry, so too might we draw a “space” by “vectors” which will analogously define the coordinates of Thoreau's writings: the first, the imperative of attention; the second, aesthetic imagination; the third, self-consciousness, specifically the assessment of personal value. Their meeting, at the origin of the vectors that delineate this metaphorical space, is the Thoreauvian self, whose metaphysics I am attempting to establish. To do so, I must now deal with Thoreau's epistemology, where these coordinates inform and guide his naturalist enterprise. Postponing consideration of Thoreau's status as “scientist” to later chapters, I will here offer a topography of Thoreau's epistemological endeavor. Heavily influenced by the lingering effects of High Romanticism, his epistemology, as judged by positivist standards newly emerging in the 1830s and 1840s, would meet with only varying success. It swings between careful observation of all forms of nature that indeed approaches scientific, and a form of prose poetry in the guise of nature writing. We need to understand what this epistemological spectrum meant to Thoreau and, further, why his discrediting of science resonates so powerfully with our own twenty-first-century humanism.

Much has been written concerning Thoreau's placement as a poet, writer, historian, naturalist, scientist, Transcendentalist, and social reformer. He, of course, possesses many identities, and to categorize him with one or another is to omit dimensions of his thought and work that do not fit neatly into

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Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - The Eternal Now 23
  • 2 - Another Apple Tree 45
  • 3 - Another Apple Tree 75
  • 4 - Thoreau at the Crossroads 104
  • 5 - Thoreau's Personalized Facts 140
  • 6 - Thoreau's Moral Universe 163
  • 7 - The Self-Positing I 195
  • Epilogue: Mending the World 222
  • Notes 231
  • References 285
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