Saturday, July 07, 2012

Solitude and Stoicism

Notes on Walden, IV
"strange liberty in Nature"

"Thoreau was most himself when he was Diogenes."
- Guy Davenport, "Concord Sonata" p 53
"Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth."
- Walden, p 330
I read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius a couple of years ago and found in them some suggestions for living the stoic life that had appeal to my way of thinking. Marcus Aurelius was steeped in the thoughts of the Greek and Roman stoics who, starting with Zeno, focused on the search for a firm support for the moral life. How should I live? was the great and overriding question for them. Following on from Zeno and Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius saw the importance of philosophical inquiry lay in its significance for the moral life. He said, “Always think of the universe as one living organism with a single substance and a single soul.” This leads to the basic Stoic perception that “there is a law which governs the course of nature and should govern human actions.”(Meditations, p 73)
Since Stoicism held, centrally, that there is one law for man and nature, it follows that one might indeed study nature in order to learn that law for men. Again, from Marcus Aurelius we read, “Reserve your right to any deed or utterance that accords with nature. Do not be put off bey the criticisms or comments that may follow . . . those who criticize you have their own reason to guide them, and their own impulse to prompt them; you must not let your eyes stray towards them but keep a straight course and follow your own nature and the World Nature (and the way of these two is one).”(Meditations, p 75)
Much of Stoic writing evinces a gladness or joy that defies the stereotypical view of Stoicism as represented by the stiff upper lip. “O world,” says Marcus, “I am in tune with every note of thy great harmony. For me nothing is early, nothing late, if it be timely for thee.” (Meditations, p 68)  But the most important aspect of Stoicism as it relates to the enterprise of Thoreau and his friends was the insistence on the primacy of the individual and upon things which lie within the reach of each individual will. “No matter to what solitudes banished, I have always been the favorite of fortune. For Fortune's favor is the man who awards her good gifts to himself,” said Marcus. (Meditations, p 90)
According to his biographer Robert Richardson, Thoreau does not mention Marcus Aurelius. He certainly does not appear in my reading of Walden. Yet we have statements like “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”(p 326) And in Thoreau's case the source of the different drummer was the music of the spheres, Nature herself.  We read in the chapter titled "Solitude":
“I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself. As I walk along the stony shore of the pond in my shirt sleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, and I see nothing special to attract me, all the elements are unusually congenial to me.”(p 129)
Ellery Channing commented that Thoreau had a natural Stoicism, “not taught from Epictetus” or anyone else.( Channing, p. 11) Thoreau's thought had a strong ethical center. He was focused on how best he could lead his daily life and the best source for our morality is Nature. Thoreau literally lived the life of the natural Stoic.

Thoreau, the Poet-Naturalist by William Ellery Channing. Charles E. Goodspeed, Boston. 1902
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Penguin Classics, 2006
Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Princeton University Press, 2004 (1971)
“Concord Sonata” in The Death of Picasso by Guy Davenport. Shoemaker & Hoard, 2003


Gary Brown said...

Harding also does not mention Marcus Aurelius in conjunction with Thoreau; however, I can't imagine Thoreau didn't run across the Roman while at Harvard.

Thanks for the information. And your blogs!

James said...

Thanks for the comment and the confirmation from Harding's biography.