Thoreau's Living Ethics

Thoreau's Living Ethics: Walden and the Pursuit of Virtue

Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 288
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    Thoreau's Living Ethics
    Book Description:

    Thoreau's Living Ethics is the first full, rigorous account of Henry Thoreau's ethical philosophy. Focused on Walden but ranging widely across his writings, the study situates Thoreau within a long tradition of ethical thinking in the West, from the ancients to the Romantics and on to the present day. Philip Cafaro shows Thoreau grappling with important ethical questions that agitated his own society and discusses his value for those seeking to understand contemporary ethical issues. Cafaro's particular interest is in Thoreau's treatment of virtue ethics: the branch of ethics centered on personal and social flourishing. Ranging across the central elements of Thoreau's philosophy-life, virtue, economy, solitude and society, nature, and politics-Cafaro shows Thoreau developing a comprehensive virtue ethics, less based in ancient philosophy than many recent efforts and more grounded in modern life and experience. He presents Thoreau's evolutionary, experimental ethics as superior to the more static foundational efforts of current virtue ethicists. Another main focus is Thoreau's environmental ethics. The book shows Thoreau not only anticipating recent arguments for wild nature's intrinsic value, but also demonstrating how a personal connection to nature furthers self-development, moral character, knowledge, and creativity. Thoreau's life and writings, argues Cafaro, present a positive, life-affirming environmental ethics, combining respect and restraint with an appreciation for human possibilities for flourishing within nature.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-3666-4
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. The Challenge
    (pp. 1-15)

    “Mr. President and Gentlemen,” the tall, thin, large-nosed man at the podium begins, “I greet you on the re-commencement of our literary year. Our anniversary is one of hope, and, perhaps, not enough of labor.”¹ It is August 1837. Ralph Waldo Emerson is addressing the Phi Beta Kappa Society in Brattle Street Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts, as part of Harvard College’s commencement ceremonies. Along with the new inductees a good portion of Boston’s intelligentsia is present, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Wendell Phillips, and James Russell Lowell. America’s most popular and influential nineteenth-century intellectual has begun what remains America’s most famous commencement...

  6. Life
    (pp. 16-44)

    Henry Thoreau went to Walden Pond to take up Emerson’s challenge. Walden, published seven years after Thoreau’s two-year sojourn, records what he learned there and subsequently, as he worked to improve his life.¹ It is both an achievement and a record of achievements. It poses its own challenges but, its author hopes, offers readers help in meeting them.

    Let us consider two key passages, beginning at the beginning with the epigraph, the only sentence that is repeated in Walden:

    I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing...

  7. Virtue
    (pp. 45-75)

    The past twenty-five years have seen the rise of “virtue ethics” as an alternative to Kantian and utilitarian ethical theories. Academic philosophers have returned to this more comprehensive approach to ethics, often through the study of ancient Greek philosophy.¹ This process of philosophical restoration has involved recovering the ancients’ conception of virtue as personal excellence, recovering an ethical space for the pursuit of excellence, and recovering a broad account of virtue that acknowledges the full spectrum of human interests and activities. As I show below, Thoreau anticipated these recovery projects in Walden and went considerably further than most contemporary philosophers...

  8. Economy
    (pp. 76-105)

    “My purpose in going to Walden Pond,” Henry Thoreau writes early in Walden, “was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business with the fewest possible obstacles; to be hindered from accomplishing which for want of a little common sense, a little enterprise and business talent, appeared not so [much] sad as foolish” (19). As we have seen, the “business” referred to includes living a good life, “private” not because it is best pursued alone, but because no one can do it for us.

    Whatever his original intentions, an important part of Thoreau’s...

  9. Solitude and Society
    (pp. 106-138)

    “My dear Henry, A frog was made to live in a swamp, but a man was not made to live in a swamp. Yours ever, R.” So wrote an exasperated Ralph Waldo Emerson in his journal, after yet another contentious, unsatisfying discussion with his protégé. The charge made by Emerson and others was that Thoreau was cold and asocial; interesting and challenging, perhaps, but lacking in the milk of human kindness; in short, a poor friend. As Emerson wrote in another journal entry: “As for taking Thoreau’s arm, I should as soon take the arm of an elm tree.”¹ Thoreau...

  10. Nature
    (pp. 139-173)

    Environmental ethics asks how people should treat the rest of nature. In the words of a leading environmental philosopher, it seeks to specify “duties to and values in the natural world.”¹ Over the past few decades, environmental ethics has emerged as an important field within academic philosophy, its growth spurred by our immense environmental problems and the sense that a change in values will be needed to successfully address them.

    As we strive to develop a strong and effective environmental ethics, I believe no thinker has more to offer than Henry Thoreau. He was one of the earliest and remains...

  11. Politics
    (pp. 174-204)

    Any ethics presupposes a politics. A conception of the good life for individuals presupposes notions of a good community: one that will allow, encourage, or force its citizens to live such lives. Thoreau as practical philosopher focuses on our individual choices; there is no political equivalent to Walden. However, we can recover elements of a vision of a just social order scattered throughout his writings. Part of this vision involves guaranteeing basic rights to all citizens. The great failure in this regard during Thoreau’s lifetime, of course, was slavery, and this part of his ideal is argued for clearly and...

  12. Foundations
    (pp. 205-229)

    Walden is filled with ethical judgments. What, if anything, justifies them? Casual readers tend to ask the question in personal terms: who is he to judge other people’s lives, and to judge them so harshly? Philosophers, wary of committing the ad hominem fallacy and mindful that kindly judgments need justification as much as curmudgeonly ones, will de-personalize the question. How, they might ask, does Thoreau ground his ethical judgments? What are his ethical foundations?

    Whether they seek them in God, Nature, the structure of reason, or elsewhere, philosophers look to ethical foundations to provide three things. First, these foundations should...

  13. Death
    (pp. 230-236)

    If “to be a philosopher . . . is to solve some of the problems of life, not merely theoretically, but practically,” death might be our greatest philosophical challenge. The ancients sometimes described philosophy as a training for death. How to accept rather than fear it; how to use it as an incentive to live well; how to die gracefully and with dignity. By the end of his life, Thoreau had learned these lessons. In the final analysis, his death is the most eloquent testament to the success of his life and a final, valuable window into his ethics.¹


  14. A Note to the Reader
    (pp. 237-238)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 239-258)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 259-264)
  17. Index
    (pp. 265-272)