Sunday, July 12, 2009

Thoreau, Solitude, Being-With

Henry David Thoreau, a beloved prophet of Unitarian Universalist thought, celebrates his birthday today. We express gratitude and awe for the complex works which he left us - specifically, his unique fusion of the literary, the poetic, the natural, the scientific, the moral and, most of all, the mysterious.

For Thoreau, the truest, most authentic self can be excavated deep within the individual - in that secret, inviolable and enigmatic place of solitary individuality. As such, his 'Walden' account favors a simple life of withdrawal, in seclusion, enveloped in Nature (sic?):

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.

Many have questioned Thoreau's obsession with the private - and rightly so.

In the Janamsakhi tradition, there exists a story about Guru Nanak's travels to a sacred site high in the Himalayan mountains that illustrates the danger of Thoreau's position. Upon arrival, a band of yogis approaches him and utters: "You seem like a true spiritual aspirant, if you want to complete your spiritual journey you have to renounce the world. Renounce your desires and join us." To this proposition, Guru Nanak answers: "You have not renounced the world, you have run away from it. The world is on fire. You have the knowledge of how to put it out. What kind of spirituality is this that leaves humanity to suffer?"

In effect, as Heidegger suggests, being-in-the-world involves being-with-others; Dasein is neither worldless nor isolated. Rather, subjectivities are always interdependent and such intersubjectivity forms the condition for being itself.

Nevertheless, there is much to be admired in Thoreau's work. For example:

So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say; but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one centre. All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant.


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1 comment:

Diggitt said...

I am grateful for your bringing this up. It deserves study.