The American Diogenes—Henry David Thoreau's Living Philosophy

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4m May 2, 2021

The living philosophy of Thoreau can be fruitfully understood through the lens of his ancient counterpart in philosophy Diogenes the Cynic. Henry David Thoreau is known for his two famous works Walden and On Civil Disobedience. The one is a prototype of nature writing while the other is a powder keg political essay. Though the subject matter of these books seem to be chasms apart they are both expressions of the living philosophy of Thoreau.

Like the ancient Cynic Diogenes, Henry David Thoreau’s living philosophy can be understood by its two fundamental strains.

The first is uncompromising integrity. Thoreau put little stock in the opinions of his neighbour. Even his friend and mentor the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “H is military H seemed stubborn + implacable; always manly + wise, but rarely sweet.” Thoreau was marching to a different drummer. The north on his inner compass was his values and he strove to live up to and embody these values no matter the social or economic costs.

This explains his ardent stands on abolition (he was an outspoken supporter of the radical abolitionist John Brown and a conductor on the underground railroad smuggling escaped slaves into Canada where slavery was illegal). He also spent a night in prison for refusing to pay a poll tax because he refused to support the spread of slavery with the Mexican-American War. This was the event that inspired his essay On Civil Disobedience that was a major inspiration for Gandhi (who named his movement after it and got all his friends in the Indian Independence movement to support) and Martin Luther King.

The other Diogenean strain in Thoreau tells us to simplify our lives. We only have to satisfy our basic pleasures. By doing so we liberate ourselves from the shackles of the body which, after all, are only the roots of our being. Do not spend your whole life tending your roots when the true flourishing of humanity lies in its great towering shoots and the fruits that they bear. Do not live a life of quiet desperation when the good life is within your reach. Thoreau set out to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life”
Like his ancient counterpart, he was dedicated to living his philosophy. Philosophy was not for him an idle pursuit of intellectual leisure but something lived and acted upon:

“There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”

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