— Henry David Thoreau, from “Conclusion,” Walden
Tonight, a political rant, but this time I’m going after many of my fellow liberals: I’m against the expulsion of University of Oklahoma students involved in the recent racist video. I’m not defending these guys. (And I think the closing of their frat house is another matter; one could make a case for it based on nondiscrimination laws.)
What I’m talking about is the expression of ideas, good or bad. There’s an important reason to support free speech as a principle, and not just when we agree with the content, and this reason is amply illustrated by history: Once people get used to prohibiting speech they find offensive, they soon ban the defense of many good ideas and the criticism of many bad ones.
Speech codes have no place at a university. Aside from libel and threats of violence, the only rule should be, “If you say it, you will be called upon to defend it.” Open prejudice is its own worst enemy.
Thoreau lived in an age in which learned people were still in awe of the ancient Greeks and Romans, which were seen as representing a golden age of civilization that the modern world had yet to recover. Similarly, the United States was often seen as a young and backwards nation that was culturally inferior to Europe. But Henry, though he loved the classics as much as anyone, was unconcerned:
“Some are dinning in our ears that we Americans, and moderns generally, are intellectual dwarfs compared with the ancients, or even the Elizabethan men. But what is that to the purpose? A living dog is better than a dead lion. Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can? Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made.” Continue reading
“Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense? The commonest sense is the sense of men asleep, which they express by snoring. Sometimes we are inclined to class those who are once-and-a-half-witted with the half-witted, because we appreciate only a third part of their wit.”
As you read the Conclusion to Walden, pay attention to Thoreau’s use of waking and sleep as metaphors of one’s larger awareness of self and of the world. It also had a surprising personal significance for the author — to his frustration, he suffered from narcolepsy, a neurological sleep disorder that ran in his family and which sometimes interfered with his ability to work. He valued awakening in more ways than one!
(About “A Year in Walden”)
“It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor toadstools grow so. As if that were important, and there were not enough to understand you without them. As if Nature could support but one order of understandings…”
I think this is one of the funnier passages in Walden. Is Thoreau aware that he is sometimes ambiguous or difficult to understand? Yes he is. Does he see this as a problem? Not at all! Over the years many readers have read Thoreau in a lot of different ways, and have drawn different lessons from him. Not that all readings are equally well-supported by context, but there’s no denying that Henry seems uninterested in communicating a narrow and precise meaning. In these posts I’ve made much of his growing scientific awareness, but Walden is not a scientific treatise. You won’t find this in a scientific paper: Continue reading
I’m going to quote a well-quoted paragraph in which Thoreau sums up much of the content of Walden. Taken by itself — if you’re coming to this page without having read the rest of the book… well, read the paragraph and then I’ll tell you what I have in mind: Continue reading
“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”
I never noticed until now that he says “Perhaps it seemed to me” instead of just “It seemed to me.” Is he being coy? Does he not want to get into the whole thing about the Emersons? Or is he admitting that’s it’s often hard to know the full reasons why we do what we do?
Several years after moving back to town (but before publishing Walden) he wrote in his journal (January 22, 1852): Continue reading