Nature Mysticism and
200 Years After Thoreau
By Gene Sager
We live in a hectic, I would say, frenetic society
which overuses Nature and treats it harshly. We are obsessive with our
technological devices. Despite great divergence of opinion, or rather
because of it, we paradoxically agree that we are severely polarized.
Finally, violence abounds, from domestic violence to non-domestic homicides,
to ground wars and air strikes abroad. Most of us seem to have resigned
ourselves to our condition. I would not call this Henry David Thoreau’s time
of “quiet desperation,” but rather one of “desperate tweeting.”
How shall we find the wisdom and grit to change our
current situation for the better? American philosopher and author Thoreau is
one of the most profound voices I have heard. Here, I apply the most
relevant of his insights to our present circumstances. However, I note that,
on my reckoning, he made one serious error which we must avoid.
Grounding Ourselves in Nature
re-establish our sanity, we need to re-establish our relation to Nature.
Experience in Nature grounds us and brings us to our senses. Thoreau knew so
well that attending to Nature is an antidote to frenzy. This, above all, is
the value of Nature for us – rather than its usefulness for producing
products. In his commencement address at Harvard University in 1837, Thoreau
declared, “This curious world we inhabit is more wonderful than it is
convenient; more beautiful than it is useful; it is more to be admired and
enjoyed than used.” (Walden and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau,
The wonder and beauty of Nature, when savored deeply
and often, is the core experience of Nature mysticism. With this comes
serenity and a powerful sense of the unity of all things. It instills a
protective inclination as well. But the poor word “mysticism” has too often
been programmed in people’s minds with a link to the esoteric or occult.
Such associations are not part of the classic definition and definitely not
part of Thoreau’s experience. His Nature mysticism was based on leisurely
walks in Nature; no trances and no magical visions. “Simplicity” was his
watchword, in housekeeping and in spiritual life.
Experience of Nature need not be the experience of
wilderness Nature. Many urban areas have a measure of natural environment.
Even the Big Apple has a Big Park (Manhattan’s Central Park), including
glacier-polished schist boulders. And we need to dispel the myth of Thoreau
as the “wild woods hermit.” Even when he was living near Walden Pond, his
cabin was about a mile from Concord and he walked into the village most every day.
Social Conscience versus Tranquility
The serenity of his walks was his most coveted
experience. But the pangs of his social conscience gradually came to compete
with this tranquility. He was saddened by the needless complexity of his
neighbors’ lives and by the war of greed (as he saw it) over the border with
Mexico; he was angered by the institution of slavery and the Fugitive Slave
Law which required his neighbors to report runaway slaves. He could not but
voice his opinion and take action to challenge his compatriots. Faced with
the two horns of the dilemma – the serenity of Nature mysticism and the
turbulence of social action – he strove to attain a balance between them.
We deal with a parallel set of issues today:
over-consumption and climate change, US military action in multiple foreign
countries, and heated issues concerning immigration and sanctuary. Like
Thoreau, we need balance, including an inner balance so as not to complicate
our lives with increasing verbal and physical violence.
Thoreau was for many years consistently non-violent
in his protests. On several occasions, he called and presided over township
meetings to rouse his neighbors. In an act of civil disobedience, he refused
to pay his poll taxes and was jailed in Concord. His famous essay “Civil
Disobedience” is a brilliant, closely reasoned argument. Based on the clear
distinction between morality and legality, it is a guide for effective,
non-violent social action and has inspired the likes of Gandhi, Martin
Luther King, and Tolstoy.
The Error to be Avoided
Although in “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau recommends
non-violent protest, he does include a passage which warns that in some
situations violence may be “unavoidable.” His writings began to take on a
more strident tone in later articles like “Slavery in Massachusetts,” which
was a harangue of savage indignation.
Then, on May 21, 1856, abolitionist John Brown
instigated a violent attack in Kansas, resulting in the murder of five
pro-slavery citizens. Thoreau supported Brown wholeheartedly, although many
abolitionists withdrew their support from him. Thoreau’s state of mind was,
at this time, uncharacteristic. “I walk,” he said, “toward one of our ponds,
but what signifies the beauty of Nature when men are base? We walk to see
our serenity reflected in them; when we are not serene, we go not to them.”
When writing about Brown, he said, “I put a piece of paper and a pencil
under my pillow, and when I could not sleep, I wrote in the dark.”
In this crisis situation, Thoreau lost the
balance between Nature mysticism and social action. He had said he was a
“reluctant crusader,” and his reluctance is understandable. Engagement in
social controversy is stressful, confusing, and can throw one off balance –
even lead to regrettable words and actions.
Thoreau thought he was facing an “unavoidable”
situation in regard to slavery. Following John Brown’s logic, he thought
that since slavery was defended by violent forceful means (by the military
and police), one is justified in using violent force to counter it.
Apparently, he did not realize that if force is used to combat force, then
force will be used to combat force to combat force – force to stop force to
stop force. The pattern will escalate and continue.
We can learn much from those who have faced troubled
times like ours. I hope these thoughts about Thoreau’s reactions will help
us find a balance between our sources of serenity and non-violent social
Gene C. Sager is Professor of Environmental Ethics at Palomar College in San Marcos, California. He is a prolific and thoughtful writer on environmental and philosophical issues.