What does Thoreau mean by “Compassion is a very untenable ground”? (Walden 197)

Thoreau believed strongly that we need to witness the power of nature, to observe how it transgresses our limits. And this includes seeing what we perceive as the darker and more grotesque side of nature. As we come to the end of the chapter “Spring,” he’s about to say something startling, something which, if taken out of context, would seem callous and offensive — we’ll get to that a little later. “We are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion which disgusts and disheartens us, and deriving health and strength from the repast.” Are you cheered when you see vultures circling in the sky, or feasting on road kill? Thoreau even describes a dead horse along the path home, with an odor so strong that he went out of his way to avoid the stench, “but the assurance it gave me of the strong appetite and inviolable health of Nature was my compensation for this. I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another; that tender organizations can be so serenely squashed out of existence like pulp….” Sure, this abundance of life seems great, but only as long as you look at the whole ecosystem and the not the individuals living and dying in it. He gives a few examples of predation and concludes, “The impression made on a wise man is that of universal innocence. Poison is not poisonous after all, nor are any wounds fatal. Compassion is a very untenable ground. It must be expeditious. Its pleadings will not bear to be stereotyped.” Compassion is untenable? So was Thoreau an early Ayn Rand? What does it mean to be “expeditious”? (”acting or done in a quick and efficient way.”) Mark Richardson writes about this passage on his blog Era of Casual Fridays. He explains the etymologies behind Thoreau’s wordplay with “untenable” and “expeditious” (it’s a bit technical, but interesting), and then gives his interpretation of the passage:

“Thoreau makes a simple but (to some) unsettling point. You cannot hold to compassion generally, or in the abstract, or at all times, and for all creatures. ‘Compassion’ must be particularized and highly contingent (i.e., never ‘stereotyped’). We may well mourn the death of some particular person, say, but we cannot, or should not, or perhaps must not, mourn ‘death.’ We must love it… As it is for Walt Whitman, so it is for Thoreau: death is a kind of solace, the very sign of what we mistake for its opposite — vitality. And so we ‘love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another.’ What pleasanter than that this should be so?”

It certainly doesn’t seem pleasant on the individual level (as Thoreau knew firsthand: his beloved brother John had literally died in Henry’s arms), but it’s part of the deal. No death, no life. They are two sides of the same thing, the one feeding off the other. Henry understood this, and he believed we need to understand it as well. And then he resumes his description of spring — the trees, the birds, the “sulphur-like pollen of the pitch pine” that covered the pond, a golden dust of reproductive matter. “And so the seasons went rolling on into summer, as one rambles into higher and higher grass.” And so the chapter “Spring,” the last before the “Conclusion,” ends: “Thus was my first year’s life in the woods completed; and the second year was similar to it. I finally left Walden September 6th, 1847.” (About  “A Year in Walden”)

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