Last time I ended with this: “Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthly empire of the Czar is but a petty state, a hummock left by the ice.” Thoreau has been talking about travel and discovery, but we soon realize that he’s talking about self-discovery, and he follows with this startling passage:
“Yet some can be patriotic who have no self-respect, and sacrifice the greater to the less. They love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay. Patriotism is a maggot in their heads. What was the meaning of that South-Sea Exploring Expedition, with all its parade and expense, but an indirect recognition of the fact that there are continents and seas in the moral world to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone.”
It’s hard to know where to begin. To me at least, it seems like he’s trying to say a lot of things at once, and it doesn’t get any less complicated after the quoted passage.
First thought: The liberal in me enjoys the shot at cheap patriotism. (Why is it that the Americans most prone to flag-waving and declarations of love of country tend to be those who either don’t understand or who are openly hostile to the highest ideals upon which the country was founded?)
As the passage continues he sounds dismissive of exploration and discovery, but in fact he traveled a good deal in the northeast and became increasingly interested in Native American history and culture as he grew older. So was he being inconsistent? Maybe. But I think what he’s getting at here is that it’s pointless to try to learn about other lands and other cultures when you’re making no effort to learn who you are. In light of the blind and stupid arrogance of most explorers of Thoreau’s day, I think that explanation makes sense. Listen to him:
“It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. Yet do this even till you can do better, and you may perhaps find some “Symmes’ Hole” by which to get at the inside at last.”
John Symmes was a crank who believed the earth was hollow and that civilizations lived inside, and that the interior could be reached by holes at the North and South Pole — a handy metaphor for the type of exploration Henry favored!
By why did Thoreau start off by criticizing patriotism and then drift into travel and exploration versus self-discovery? One way to look at is that he’s talking about the individual versus the collective. Notice how the patriotic person, lacking self-respect, sacrifices the greater to the lesser. What is the greater if not the individual, the self?
A little later Henry goes on to to talk about the French revolutionary Honore Riqueti, Count de Marabeau (1749-91) who “took to highway robbery ‘to ascertain what degree of resolution was necessary in order to place one’s self in formal opposition to the most sacred laws of society.’” Not that Henry was advocating that. “It is not for a man to put himself in such an attitude to society, but to maintain himself in whatever attitude he find himself through obedience to the laws of his being, which will never be one of opposition to a just government, if he should chance to meet with such.”
In other words, Henry was never going to say, “My country, right or wrong.” To him, the ideal person drew his or her ethics from contemplation. Good values come from stripping away the superfluities and looking deeply at the world — not that you have to go to the woods to do this, but nevertheless that’s what his going to the woods was really about — and from there you have the basis for standing up to the world, looking it in the eye, and telling it calmly when it is wrong and that you’re not going to go along quietly. If you know yourself and understand your relation to the rest of the living world — like an inlet to an ocean — your conscience, he believes, will guide you correctly.
(About “A Year in Walden”)