While Henry David Thoreau was conducting his life experiment, living simply and deliberately in a cabin alongside Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts in 1845, he began to feel that “[t]he wildest scenes had become unaccountably familiar.” In Walden, he wrote, “I find myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good.” Words like these hint toward an ostensible tension between a higher and a lower nature. But another way to read his account in Walden is that Thoreau thought, as has been evidentially borne out, that one and the same human nature can be the source for self-control, empathy, and reason on the one hand and dominance, revenge, and violence on the other. Further, the norms and institutions we create for ourselves will either cultivate our spiritual lives or allow our tendencies toward harm and destruction to thrive. From the Wild come our tendencies toward baser behaviors but also our tendencies toward the Good.
Thoreau’s reference to the Wild and the Good appears in Walden, in the chapter “Higher Laws,” between two incongruous passages. The passage appears after Thoreau confesses his desire to eat raw a woodchuck he saw scurrying about and before a passage saying there’s something inhumane and rather grisly about eating animals for sustenance. He writes, “No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature which holds its life by the same tenure that he [the boy] does. The hare in its extremity cries like a child.” And as if to emphasize he knows how inflammatory his comparison between a suffering rabbit and a suffering child might be, he writes, “I warn you, mothers, that my sympathies do not always make the usual phil-anthropic distinctions.” The sentence suggests that being philanthropic is not just a matter of bearing in mind the equality of persons but one of considering the suffering of all sentient creatures.
Thoreau reasons that making an animal suffer is much like making a child suffer. The reasoning parallels contemporary ethical discussions about how to think about the suffering of animals in view of our long history of consuming them, including in the works of Peter Singer and Michael Pollan. However, Thoreau does not mean for his reasoning to be conclusive. He is debating with himself. He is inviting dissent, or at the very least dialogue regarding the issue, just as he does in Walden with the strangers he meets.
The discussions that Thoreau has throughout his experiment in simple and deliberate living are philosophical in the broad sense. Sometimes the discussion centers on the injustices of the wage system, or at other times on what might be called the topic of multiple intelligences, Thoreau averring that those who are often called “simple” possess more intellectual capacity than they’re given credit for. The topics seem to emerge in these conversations effortlessly and naturally, like clouds from frozen water crystal, and then just as quickly pass.
In addition to expressing empathy with the pain of other suffering creatures and reasoning about abstract topics as they pertain to the practical necessities of life, Thoreau appeals to what he calls purity to guide him through his life, but which we could just as easily call self-control. Thoreau writes of this self-control: “Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man’s features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute him.” We are fundamentally physical creatures, Thoreau says, biological animals with a capacity to use our bodies as we will—but with that comes the responsibility to use them for nobler purposes. And this is what self-control amounts to, and what it would mean if we are to follow Thoreau’s command to wake up. Thoreau writes:
Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep… To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.
Self-control, alongside empathy and reason, helps us focus reform on creating a better quality of life for other people first within ourselves. The norms we follow and encourage others to follow and the institutions we create, if they are built upon our strengths, will actually lead to a better world. Pioneers like Henry David Thoreau, the American Transcendalists, the Enlightenment figures, and the Renaissance and Church reformers before us have made it possible for us to live in a better world where extreme poverty has fallen, global inequality is at an all-time low, and violence is declining, to name a few issues. Other problems abound, of course—two of the issues at the forefront of my mind are poverty and income inequality and the decline of democracy within the United States. There is still more work to be done to make our wild biological selves expressive of our virtues. But we’ll get there, with a little organization and effort.