Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862):
Chapter 11: "Higher Laws"

from Walden (1854)

On my first trip to Boston in 1969, I visited the Houghton Library of Harvard University. Under a glass case was a 5-page manuscript The Transmigration of the Seven Brahmans" in the handwriting of Henry David Thoreau. I knew Thoreau had access to Emerson's library of Orientalia books, and was delighted finding quotes from Confucius, Mencius, Bhagavad Gita, Vishnu Puranas scattered in his Walden. Now, I've found physical evidence of Thoreau's interest in Oriental philosophy. Thoreau refused to pay poll taxes because of his opposition to the Mexican-American War and slavery. He spent a night in jail because of this refusal. His Civil Disobedience (1849) inspired Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. to peaceful non-violence as an act of protest. After John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry, Thoreau gave a speech A Plea for Captain John Brown (1859) in favor of the abolitionist movement when others remained silent. These actions showed that Thoreau was no mere dreamer and loner in the woods, but actively engaged in the political issues of his times. Although Thoreau has written poetry, I find his prose writing in Walden to be quite poetic and spiritual uplifting. The selections below are from Chapter 11 of Walden— "Higher Laws". Thoreau's moral compass is prevalent in his writings. If Thoreau was not appreciated during his lifetime, it's because he's like the Poet in Baudelaire's "Albatross". Now, we regard Thoreau as a visionary, far ahead of his time concerning ecology and non-violence. I like Thoreau's views on poetry from his January 26, 1840 Journal entry: "Poetry— No definition of poetry is adequate unless it be poetry itself. The most accurate analysis by the rarest wisdom is yet insufficient, and the poet will instantly prove it false by setting aside its requistions. It is indeed all that we do not know." Beautifully said! (Peter Y. Chou)

"HIGHER LAWS"— from Walden

If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy,
and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs,
is more elastic, more starry, more immortal that is your success.
All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily
to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from
being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon
forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most
astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man.
The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and
indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little
star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.

Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant's
truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment
that never fails. In the music of the harp which trembles round
the world it is the insisting on this which thrills us.

Who knows what sort of life would result if we had attained to purity?
If I knew so wise a man as could teach me purity I would go to seek
him forthwith. "A command over our passions, and over the external
senses of the body, and good acts, are declared by the Ved to be
indispensable in the mind's approximation to God." Yet the spirit
can for the time pervade and control every member and function of
the body, and transmute what in form is the grossest sensuality
into purity and devotion. The generative energy, which, when we
are loose, dissipates and makes us unclean, when we are continent
invigorates and inspires us. Chastity is the flowering of man;
and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like,
are but various fruits which succeed it. Man flows at once
to God when the channel of purity is open.

— Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862),
     "Higher Laws"— Chapter 11
     The Varioum Walden, based on 1st edition (1854)
     Annotated with Introduction by Walter Harding
     Washington Square Press, New York, 1962, pp. 165-167

Thoreau: A Guide to Resources
    (Biography, Images, Works, Analysis, Quotes, Bibliography)
The Thoreau Reader
    (Walden, Maine Woods, Cape Cod, Civil Disobedience, Walking)
Thoreau: Selected Poems
    (Published in The Dial, 1840-1844)
Books & Writers: Henry David Thoreau
    (Biography, Selected Works)
Academy of American Poets: Henry David Thoreau
    (Biography, Poems, Prose, Surrealist & Symbolist Poets)
Emerson & Thoreau
    (Their friendship as recorded in Journals of Emerson & Thoreau)
Thoreau's Journals
    (Selections from Thoreau's Journals 1837-1861)
Wikipedia: Henry David Thoreau
    (Early Years, Walden Years, Late & Final Years, Influence, Online Texts)

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