Thoreau, Homer, and Community

By Lopez, Robert Oscar | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Thoreau, Homer, and Community


Lopez, Robert Oscar, Nineteenth-Century Prose


In Walden, Thoreau repeatedly alludes to Homer's Iliad. While many Thoreau scholars have commented on his firm grasp on the classics, there are still some new connections to be drawn between Walden and the specific passages of the Iliad to which Walden refers. Thoreau's choices about which sections of the Iliad to cite offer an interesting glance into some of his interior dilemmas: his difficulties with sexuality, his divided sensibilities about friendship, and his uncertainty about the proper amount of sacrifice an individual should make in the name of a larger community.

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This essay will seek to add to Thoreau studies by examining new connections between Thoreau's Walden and Homer's Iliad. In the process, it will also build on the work of other Thoreau scholars, to reflect on his conflicted thoughts about community and friendship in Walden. What Thoreau got out of reading Homer and how he felt about human relationships are more interconnected than one might guess. One can, for instance, come to notice Thoreau's conversation with the ghosts of ancient Greece in Walden, by beginning with a question that strikes at the notion of community: when Thoreau speaks, with whom is he speaking?

In Walden, Thoreau's ideal discourse community is hard to define. One important reason for this is that Thoreau usually does not seem sure about who is listening to him. He seems more certain about the wide range of social forces that he would prefer to escape. His position on social life appears unambiguous in Walden when he says, "wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society," adding that "I preferred that society should run 'amok' against me, it being the desperate party." (1) It worries the author of Walden that men and women, if given the chance, institutionalize each other and halt their progress toward a truly free consciousness. As Lewis Leary puts it, Thoreau "advocated consciousness, yes; perception, certainly; but manipulation, no." (2) Of these three, manipulation is the only mechanism that involves live communication among people, rather than individuated and private thought. Community endangers both consciousness and perception insofar as all social intercourse is tainted by the prospects of manipulation and, therefore, corruption.

It would be rash to conclude that, because of his fear of human manipulation, Thoreau spits on all notions of human community. He is not a total misanthrope. He believes that noble virtues are available to anyone, in any locale or era where individuals find opportunities to cultivate their better instincts. As Bob Pepperman Taylor says of Thoreau, he "firmly believes that truth, heroism and virtue are universal attributes found in great individuals in all historical settings." (3) This idealism about human capability is closely linked to Thoreau's desire to be firmly rooted in the present rather than transfixed by the gleaming prestige of the past. Even though Thoreau is wary of his peers, he tries his best not to express his wariness as a smug preference for organic communities of an earlier golden age. He is hostile to historical nostalgia and refuses to grant to antiquity a higher place in the social order than his own time. The famous and enduring last words of Walden are that "The sun is but a morning star." (4) The book's finale is a statement of proportionality. In thinking about the sun being as small as one dot of light, perhaps the reader can appreciate the enormous timeline that human potential inhabits.

Time is clearly on the author's mind in Walden, though his thoughts on human beings' relationship to history are complex and multilayered. Thoreau had a complex affection for dead geniuses like Homer, to be examined below, but this reverence for ancient ideas is still tempered by his desire to dismiss the grandiose claims of history's crumbling ruins and rotting tombs. …

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