Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing

Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing

Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing

Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing


In his graceful philosophical account, Alfred I. Tauber shows why Thoreau still seems so relevant today--more relevant in many respects than he seemed to his contemporaries. Although Thoreau has been skillfully and thoroughly examined as a writer, naturalist, mystic, historian, social thinker, Transcendentalist, and lifelong student, we may find in Tauber's portrait of Thoreau the moralist a characterization that binds all these aspects of his career together.
Thoreau was caught at a critical turn in the history of science, between the ebb of Romanticism and the rising tide of positivism. He responded to the challenges posed by the new ideal of objectivity not by rejecting the scientific worldview, but by humanizing it for himself. Tauber portrays Thoreau as a man whose moral vision guided his life's work. Each of Thoreau's projects reflected a self-proclaimed "metaphysical ethics," an articulated program of self-discovery and self-knowing. By writing, by combining precision with poetry in his naturalist pursuits and simplicity with mystical fervor in his daily activity, Thoreau sought to live a life of virtue--one he would characterize as marked by deliberate choice. This unique vision of human agency and responsibility will still seem fresh and contemporary to readers at the start of the twenty-first century.


There is no account of the blue sky in history.

Thoreau, January 7, 1851, Journal 3, 1990, p. 174

Would you see your mind–look at the sky.

Thoreau, January 26, 1852, Journal 4, 1992, p. 291

Henry David Thoreau lived in an age of keen observers, and he was very much a man of his time. Both scientists and artists developed an acute selfconsciousness of their respective methods and faculties of observation, and of the limits as well as the prospects of their new modes of inspection. Thus each appreciated the problems of cognition with new insight. Within this tradition, for Thoreau, seeing—both the world and himself—became his preoccupation, and his problem. the least conspicuous or most obvious were equally susceptible to his gaze, and thus he made his contribution by making the ordinary extraordinary. He believed that the secrets of nature, and of humanity's place within it, were ultimately revealed by identifying what was significant in the everyday world; and that this revelation, in turn, depended on meticulous attention to, and accounting of, the commonplace. On the other hand, he too was guilty of complacency. An amusing observation made by Henry Petroski makes the point:

Henry David Thoreau seemed to think of everything when he made a list of essential supplies for a twelve-day excursion into the Maine woods. He included pins, needles, and thread among the items to be carried in an India-rubber knapsack, and he even gave the dimensions of an ample tent.… He wanted to be doubly sure to be able to start a fire and to wash up, and so he listed: “matches (some also in a small vial in the waist-coat pocket); soap, two pieces.” He specified the number of old newspapers (three or four, presumably to be used for cleaning chores), the length of strong cord (twenty feet), the size of his blanket (seven feet long), and the amount of “soft hardbread” (twenty-eight pounds!).…

… [h] e advised like-minded observers to carry a small spyglass … a pocket microscope … tape measure … and paper and stamps, to mail letters back to civilization.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.