Academic journal article East-West Connections

Cultivating the Seeds of Virtue in Mencius and Thoreau

Academic journal article East-West Connections

Cultivating the Seeds of Virtue in Mencius and Thoreau

Article excerpt

Self-culture was a moral imperative for American transcendentalists, and reading was one of the principal means of pursuing it. Reading was a search for insights that would further the spiritual development of the individual. So when Thoreau read ancient Hindu or Chinese texts, it was not with a view to gaining historical or cultural understanding, but rather an understanding of timeless moral and spiritual truths. Having discovered that the 13th century Persian poet Saadi once entertained "identically the same thought that I do," Thoreau asserts that he and Saadi are personally identical. The same "sacred self " transcends their separate historical identities (1997, 289-90). In Walden, he says, "The oldest Egyptian or Hindoo philosopher raised a corner of the veil from the statue of divinity ... and I gaze upon as fresh a glory as he did, since it was I in him that was then so bold, and it is he in me that now reviews the vision" (1971, 99). For Thoreau, self-culture is the process of lifting the veil from the statue of the divinity that is present in everyone. Even though "divinity" is not something Mencius would ascribe to human nature, it is not surprising that Thoreau should be drawn to his philosophy of self-cultivation. According to Philip Ivanhoe, Mencius "believed that to develop oneself according to one's true nature is to fulfill a design inscribed by Heaven upon our human hearts" (Ivanhoe 2000, 17). Mencius and Thoreau use the same metaphor to describe the process of developing our true nature as one in which we cultivate the seeds of virtue. It may be the case that each independently entertained "identically the same thought." Indeed, as Maryanne Horowitz has shown in her Seeds of Virtue and Knowledge, the seeds-of-virtue metaphor has been a staple of Western thought since the Stoics, and of Cicero in particular. Yet despite marked similarities between Thoreau and Cicero, in this regard, Thoreau does not quote him, even though he had read him. Given the contexts in which Thoreau quotes Mencius, it is more likely, therefore, that he borrowed the metaphor from Mencius.

Thoreau read Mencius in boThenglish and French translations (Cady 21); and he published selected quotations from Mencius in The Dial, as well as quoted him in both A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden. In A Week, there is but one quotation: "If one loses a fowl or a dog, he knows well how to seek them again; if one loses the sentiments of his heart, he does not know how to seek them again.... The duties of practical philosophy consist only in seeking after those sentiments of the heart which we have lost; that is all" (1980a, 264 [Mencius, 6A11]. This bears an obvious resemblance to a famously enigmatic passage in Walden: "I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travellers I have spoken to concerning them.... I have met one or two who ... seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves" (1971, 17). (The "one or two" were no doubt those of his friends who found him deficient in sentiments of the heart.) This passage comes five paragraphs after Thoreau identifies himself as a practical philosopher with the duty "to so love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust" (1971, 15). There is no direct correlation here between these virtues and A Week's sentiments of the heart. But one of Walden's (two) quotations from Mencius makes the connection explicit.

This comes in the chapter "Spring." For Thoreau, spring is the "morning" of the year, and spring and morning are repeatedly associated with the possibility of moral rebirth. Having died "down to its root" in winter, human life "puts forth its green blade to eternity in spring" (1971, 311). A spring morning is a time of "recovered innocence," when "all men's sins are forgiven." Even in the thief and drunkard one sees, Thoreau says, "some innocent fair shoots preparing to burst from his gnarled rind . …

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