The Self-Positing I
If I am not I, who will be? Thoreau, A Week, 1980a, p. 156
The fate of having a self—of being human—is one in which the self is always to be found; fated to be sought, or not; recognized, or not.
Stanley Cavell 1981, p. 53
One might stretch Thoreau between two poles—the Real and the Good. He sought “reality” in all of its diverse guises—in nature, in man, in his own psyche. At the same time, he sought the moral—in social action and politics, in local society, in his dealings with his intimate constellation of friends and family, and, most importantly, in his self-deliberations about his own personhood—to define himself in his work and behavior. These two modes—the ontologic and the moral—are intimately linked, so that knowledge is formed from each and thus inseparable. In short, to know the world is to know it morally, in the sense of assigning it value. 1 Thoreau bound his world together through an endless dialectical process. His vision of nature— what he valued and thus saw—was framed by a particular attitude. In turn, the world informed and guided his own moral development as he matured and cultivated his ethical consciousness in response to what he experienced. Seeing consequently becomes a moral act. The prize was Reality. This theme recurs again and again in Thoreau's admonishments. Consider, for example, the passage in Walden 's “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”:
Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito's wing that falls on the rails. Let us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently without perturbation; let company come and let company go, let the bells ring and the children cry, —determined to make a day of it. Why should we knock under and go with the stream? … If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were cimeter [scimitar], and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. (Walden, 1971, pp. 97–98)