Thoreau's Moral Universe
Our whole life is startlingly moral.
Walden, 1971, p. 218
What is Thoreau's enduring moral appeal? That question generates responses that revolve around many issues: the first, and the most accessible, pertains to his formative effect on modern environmentalism. In many respects he set that agenda. His genre of nature writing became an exploration of the unstable relationship between the wild and the pastoral; of the predicament of defining or constructing nature; of the metaphysical placement of the self in the universe. Thoreau relentlessly pursued these issues with an honesty and poignancy unique and powerfully evocative. To get to know Thoreau is to achieve an enriching dialogue, and to know him well is to engage a worthy confidant to explore these matters. But more than as a premier American naturalist, an admirer and chronicler of natural history, Thoreau was philosophically self-conscious in these pursuits. This introspective cognizance reflects a deeper source of inquiry as he engaged in perplexing and oftentimes agonizing meditations on his personhood and the meaning of his life in the context of nature.
This leads to the darker side of Thoreau's moral vision, one that dates to the birth of the social universe. How does one balance the interests of the individual with that of the community in which he lives? From Antigone to our present day, this question has been at the heart of ethics, and Thoreau's response is noteworthy for the adamant and uncompromising primacy he gives the individual. The moral vision which so guided his life was derived from an inner sense of his own personhood, the preservation of his own autonomy, the sanctity of his self-determined choice. In the end, Thoreau's moral philosophy is dangerously solipsistic; narcissistic to the extreme, Thoreau's morality was built from the precept that the protection of his autonomy was the crucial and abiding parameter of moral action. In striving for that independence, Thoreau erected a universe around himself.